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article imageReview: Thompson exposes prison brutality in new show's Toronto debut Special

By Jeff Cottrill     May 22, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Judith Thompson's new solo show “Watching Glory Die” is a brutal, unsentimental tragedy of a teenage girl's mental and psychological decline in juvenile-detention centres. What it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in honest, righteous passion.
Inspired by the true story of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old who died by self-inflicted strangulation while serving in a Kitchener, Ontario prison in 2007, Watching Glory Die — which opened at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre last night — doesn't hide where its sympathies lie. If you're not already familiar with Smith's story and similar real-life abuse incidents, this play will make you very angry about the way the system tramples on the young and kicks them into the gutter for no good reason. The double meaning of the title is a little too obvious, of course, but while a powerful subject doesn't always make a powerful play, Glory succeeds in making you feel its worthy moral outrage.
It's also a rare chance to see Thompson as an actor, and she doesn't disappoint. One of Canada's most accomplished playwrights, known for such acclaimed works as White Biting Dog and Lion in the Streets, Thompson hasn't appeared onstage since 1980, but with the help of director Ken Gass, she proves herself a deep and versatile performer who isn't afraid to take bold risks. She plays three distinct characters: Glory, a teenage girl based on Smith; her mother, Rosellen; and a prison guard who witnesses Glory's behaviour, Gail. Thompson switches between the three with little seeming effort, keeping pace with her script's intent to show the story from three very different angles.
We first meet Gail, a crusty, folksy working woman who goes strictly by the rules, a sort of Marge Gunderson type without the same level of compassion, although she does feel some empathy for her charges. Rosellen, meanwhile, is a prim, middle-aged mother who clings to hope that her daughter will come home sooner rather than later, while baffled that Glory could have turned out as she is after all of Rosellen's well-meaning efforts to be a good caregiver.
“How is it that a tiny little fruit could cause a catastrophe?” Rosellen asks, referring to the crabapples outside her window. As Smith's did, Glory's first criminal charge came when she threw crabapples at a postal worker when she was fourteen. (They may also serve as a symbol of the rotten fruits of the prison bureaucracy.) Rosellen also expresses never-ending faith in her daughter's good nature — “My Glory is fearless. In another time and place, she would have been revolutionary” – suggesting either that she's in denial or that she sees things in Glory that no one else can.
Both Gail and Rosellen are presented as plainspoken people in plain, minimal set areas. By sharp contrast, Thompson plays (and writes) Glory with a frantic, stream-of-consciousness insanity, trapped in a cubed section of the stage representing her cell. As Gail describes her, Glory is eighteen going on twelve. A combination of physical abuse, isolation and despair has turned her into an unrestrained, incoherent, maladjusted, childlike mess of mania and rage. She's haunted by hallucinations of her “crocodile mother” and other phantoms, while occasionally reminiscing about happier times before incarceration. Some of Glory's speech patterns sound a little affectatious on Thompson's part — such as her double negatives, or words like “excape” — but she draws you in, frighteningly.
Sent to a juvenile-detention centre at 14 for such a trivial crime, Glory undergoes an inhuman barrage of mental and physical tortures over the next five years. With hardened borderline indifference, Gail rattles off how many of her prisoners, including Glory, have accumulated hundreds of additional charges for misbehaviour, keeping them incarcerated for much longer than originally intended. While shuffled between different juvie and prison institutions (each one a “veal pen,” in Rosellen's words), Glory suffers discipline by pepper spray, Tasers and full body restraint, often for the smallest of offences. To Gail, it's all tough love, fully justified.
André du Toit's lighting design and Cameron Davis' video projection deserve particular mention. They add a surreal atmosphere to Glory's cell through images screened on its white walls, especially raindrops, shadows and stark reflected images of Glory herself. (The mirroring floor extends this effect, while also adding the sense that she has nobody but herself for company.) Debashis Sinha's sound effects, including loud footsteps, clanging bars and intercom voices, add to the prison nightmare and distinguish it from the plain, black motif of Gail's and Rosellen's worlds.
Glory is the one of the first productions from Gass' newly launched company, Canadian Rep Theatre. It may not be as groundbreaking as Thompson's better-known plays, and it won't say anything new to people who followed the Smith case. But it's a valuable opportunity to see a Canuck theatre icon present her own material in her own voice (filtered through Gass' direction, of course) — and do it very well, to boot.
Watching Glory Die runs at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre until June 1.
More about Theatre, Toronto, Canadian, judith thompson, Ashley Smith
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