Review: Watching Glory Die

by Lynn on February 28, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At The Grand Canyon Theatre, 2 Osler St., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Judith Thompson

Directed by Kendra Jones

Lighting by Sebastian Quinn Hoodless

Sound by John Norman

Cast: Pip Dwyer

Jennifer McEwen

Kaitlin Race

A searing indictment of our penal system in Judith Thompson’s challenging, poetic play given a stunning production.

The Story.  With that title you know it’s not going to end well. This is Judith Thompson’s indictment of the Canadian penal system, where the focus is on correction and not rehabilitation, where prisoners can be kept in prison for any infraction no matter how small.

Glory has been in jail since she was 14 years-old.  She threw a crab apple at a person’s leg and was sent to juvenile detention for six months. That was the beginning. But with every infraction, no matter how minor, Glory got more days added to her sentence until she was there for five years. By then she graduated to full-fledged prison. Her infractions accumulated. Glory was often put into solitary confinement; she was tasered, restrained. Needless to say it had a damaging effect on her.

Her mother Rosellen would try and visit her in prison (taking planes to do it) only to be told that they moved her to a different facility.  

Gail is a career guard who tried to be impartial and follow the company line but then tried to show compassion to Glory as well.  We learn that the system frowns on compassion.  

The Production. The production is terrific. It’s beautifully, vividly directed by Kendra Jones.  A large swath of elasticized material is spread on the floor in what looks like a bow-tie shape. There is also a black chair stage left.

Kendra Jones directs with simplicity, focus, sensitivity, muscle and some of the most vivid imagery I’ve seen in a long time. The swath of material at times acts as the bars of Glory’s cell, or the small opening in her cell door through which her food is passed (kudos also to Sebastian Quinn Hoodless’ lighting), restraints to bind her and a rope to entrap her.

The three characters are all dressed in drab green sweaters and pants and dark shoes. Having them dress the same suggests that they are all trapped in that same world, enduring it in their own way.

The acting is superb. As Gail, Pip Dwyer starts out as the swaggering prison guard. Her family were all guards, she naturally carried on the family tradition. But there are cracks in her story. The pressure of the job took its toll on her brother. She tries to remain strong but she too wavers. The higher-ups order Gail and her colleagues not to cut Glory down if she tries to do herself damage unless she stops breathing. You can see Gail’s unease with this order in Pip Dwyer’s layered performance.

Jennifer McEwen plays Rosellen, Glory’s loving, concerned adoptive mother. It’s a performance that illuminates a mother’s love and her frustration at not being able to help her daughter. The performance is full of euphoria when Rosellen counts down the days for Glory’s release and then rage when the worst happens.

Kaitlin Race plays Glory. It’s a mix of impish immaturity, mental damage, fragility and desperation. How is a young woman supposed to have learned restraint from inappropriate behaviour in prison? We get the sense of Glory’s mental difficulties in Race’s nuanced, haunted performance. All three actors are doing wonderful work.

Comment. The play is based on the true story of Ashley Smith, a young women who was arrested and put into jail in Nova Scotia. Judith Thompson writes with intensity and with a poetic grace of a terrible situation in our penal system, a system that entraps not just the prisoners, but also the families and the guards. Judith Thompson is one of our best, accomplished playwrights. She does not shy away from hard subjects. In Watching Glory Die she writes about a brutal, cruel, penal system that breaks a prisoner rather than rehabilitates them. With only three characters she shows how not only is the Glory damaged but so is her mother, and her guard, Gail. The buck is passed for accountability so there isn’t any.  But she sure puts you in that suffocating world of this penal system.

With such a hard subject who would I recommend this for? I’d recommend this for anybody who wants bracing, challenging theatre; anybody who wants to see indie theatre done wonderfully well. Love2 Theatre Company and Impel Theatre are doing just that; and  anybody who wants to be put in a world unlike their own for a close, uncomfortable look into a penal system that needs to be re-examined.

The woman behind me was sobbing loudly by the end of the play. When the play was over I turned around and asked if she was ok. She had recovered slightly. She said that she worked in that world. It was hard. The producers urge us to try and fix a system that needs fixing by taking action. Judith Thompson does not let us off lightly to just go off comfortably into the night. Her play makes us turn around and ask someone in obvious distress, “Are you ok?” I’m grateful for this play and this wonderful production for that at least and so much more.   

Presented by Love2 Theatre Co. & Impel Theatre.

Began: Feb. 19, 2020.

I saw it: Feb. 27, 2020.

Closes: Feb. 29. 2020. 

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