Review: Watching Glory Die

by Lynn on May 22, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Watching Glory Die

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Upstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Judith Thompson.
Directed by Ken Gass.
Designed by Astrid Janson.
Lighting by André du Toit.
Sound by Debashis Sinha.
Projections by Cameron Davis.

Produced by Canadian Rep Theatre. Plays until June 1, 2014.

An unbalanced play that refuses to address the real problem of the treatment mental illness in prisons.

The Story. Glory is 19 and has been in various correctional institutions since she was 14. She was first incarcerated for minor offences. The sentence got longer once she was serving her term because of more minor infractions. She began to choke herself and the guards would stop it by going into her cell, often. The warden ordered the guards not to interfere as this was Glory’s way of getting attention. Finally Glory hung herself, witnessed by the guards who did nothing until she turned blue, after which it was too late.

The play is based on the sad case of Ashley Smith. She is the troubled teenager who had been in jail for much of her teenaged years on various charges who hanged herself, while seven of her prison guards watched on video monitors.

The Production. Three women create Glory’s world. Glory herself, pacing around her small prison cell; her adoptive mother, Rosellen sits stage left, fretting and worrying about her sweet, innocent daughter; and Gail, Glory’s hardnosed prison guard who walks in a lighted border outside Glory’s cell. Gail looks on every inmate as a criminal. Glory is no different to her.

Designer Astrid Janson has created a boxed silver cell for Glory. No window is even suggested. Simple clothing differentiates each character. Glory wears a blue prison shift. Gail wears a dark guard jacket over the shift, and Rosellen wears a sweater. Glory wears her hair down. Rosellen wears hers in a loose ponytail.

While Glory is often kept in a Therapeutic Quiet Room (read solitary confinement) the soundscape of Debashis Sinha suggests constant noise of one thing and another—that works wonderfully. The projections of Cameron Davis, of rain, shattered glass and other patterns also add to a sense Glory’s fragile mind.

Ken Gass directs with a firm sense of the troubled world of Glory. The projection of glass shattering and the sound of it that follows says so much about what Glory is going through. Gass has guided Judith Thompson in her performance of the three women so we get a distinct sense of each character. When Glory is alone with her thoughts she is this lost, fragile creature. When she is interacting with her guards she is feisty. She is also obviously mentally ill. As Gail, Thompson is tough and hardened to the life. And as Rosellen with her voice a bit high, she is the worried mother who has not seen her daughter in more than a year because Corrections Canada keeps on moving Glory from one prison to another.

I must confess I am mystified why Thompson wanted to act in the production as well. I think it could have used a professional actress who did not seem as self conscious as Thompson and certainly could have brought out more variation and nuance in each character.

Comment. Playwright Judith Thompson has a huge heart and fierce social conscience that champions the downtrodden innocent who can’t defend themselves. Her outrage at social injustice is palpable in her plays and certainly in Watching Glory Die. She is quoted as saying that “the impossible is happening in our country” and she is certainly right. An unsettled man is tasered and killed in a Vancouver airport. A young man wielding a knife on a streetcar in Toronto dies after he is shot nine times by police who were outside the streetcar.

However sometimes Thompson’s outrage gets in the way of creating a balanced picture and that’s what we have in >Watching Glory Die. Thompson is damning a prison system that is insensitive to its inmates without once referencing that Glory is mentally ill. The unseen warden forbids the guards to help Glory when she repeatedly tries to choke herself with ligatures, saying that will only give Glory the attention she is seeking. Rosellen refuses to believe that Glory is trying to kill herself saying that that is Glory’s way of showing she wants to live. Rosellen also refuses to acknowledge Glory is mentally ill. Surely that is the centre of the problem and Thompson leaves it unsaid. Instead we have Gail who is so stupid she gives in to Glory when Glory wants to ‘play’ with Gail’s glasses. And of course Glory doesn’t give them back and breaks them. This increases Glory’s jail time. What did Gail expect Glory to do? I also don’t think for a second that Gail agonizes over her orders and her conscience.

While Rosellen doesn’t see her daughter for a full year, we never hear any comment about getting a lawyer, or calling the papers or anything to bring attention to her daughter’s situation. I can appreciate that Gail and Rosellen are isolated in their own way, but making them stupid as well weakens the play.

Well intentioned thought she is, I feel Judith Thompson has created an unbalanced, weak play about a serious subject that is never really addressed.

Opened: May 21, 2014
Closes: June 1, 2014
Cast: 1 woman
Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission.

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1 DAVID STEIN June 23, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Have we had enough boomer agitprop for one half-century?

– David Stein