Sunday, May 25, 2014

Watching Glory Die @ Canadian Rep Theatre in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs

This was my first visit to Canadian Rep Theatre, Ken Gass' newly formed theatre company after the Factory Theatre unceremoniously dumped him in 2012.  He seems to be doing just fine, judging by the list of donors in his program and the first-rate crew he's assembled for this interesting, intelligent and challenging, if not entirely satisfying production.

Canadian Rep's second show uses Canadian Stage's Upstairs space at the Berkeley Street Theatre to good effect, presenting a solo show written and performed by lauded Canadian playwright, Judith Thompson.

'Watching Glory Die" is an exploration of the death in custody of a teen-aged girl.

"Glory" is a stand-in, of sorts, for Ashley Smith, the 17 year old who died of auto-strangulation while in custody at the Grand Valley Correctional Institution in 2007. Guards stood and watched her asphyxiate, without intervening.  Her death was eventually ruled a homicide.

In her final year of life, Ashley was moved between 17 institutions in one year, including a three-month stint at a forensic mental health facility, where she eventually refused treatment, as is everyone's right. She was then taken to Grand Valley, where she died in solitary confinement.

It was a tremendously disturbing case, highlighting issues with both the Canadian justice system, and the mental health system. As a society, we incarcerate far too many seriously mentally ill people without adequately treating the mental health issues that landed them in prison in the first place.

The play explores the circumstances and events leading up to Glory's incarceration, and eventual death, from three points of view: her mother's, a female prison guard's ; who was present at the time of  Glory's death and Glory's own.

It is the gift of Thompson's writing and performance, and the restrained direction of Gass that allows the audience to empathize with all of the characters. While some of the transitions between scenes were a bit awkward, each character was clear in both the writing and the acting. Gass has given the three characters their own space, which helps clarify and highlight the differences between them.

I saw a grief stricken and enraged mother, a prison guard with a long, sad family history working in the corrections system, and a mentally disturbed girl, ostracized in solitary confinement, who has escaped into a world of fantasy as a refuge from her pain and isolation.  Glory imagines her birth mother as an alligator luring her to a swamp, a poetic allusion to the genetic set-up that perhaps, at least partially determines her fate.

The design (set and costumes by Astrid Janson, lighting by Andre du Toit, sound by Debashis Sinha and projections by Cameron Davis) was brilliant, allowing the actor to interact with the set, creating the sensations of Glory's inner life, and making palpable both the abuse she endured in custody, and her tragic death.

While the structure of the play allows the individual points of view of the characters to be explored in depth, it affords very little interaction or development of the relationships between the characters.

To really explore the tragedy that unfolds, I needed to see the darker side of the personalities of all of the characters, and, how those darker nuances played out in the conflicts in their respective relationships.  For the most part, that didn't happen.

We see the guards watch Glory kill herself. We never see even a glimpse of what it is about Glory's behaviour that turned her into a pariah in prison. Glory's mother idolizes her verbally, but we never see them interact.

There's some beautiful writing here, some very fine acting and a heart-felt exploration of the tragedy of this situation. WATCHING GLORY DIE has the bones of a great play, but it is the wrong kind of subject for a one-woman show. 

Ashley Smith was a physically imposing, socially difficult girl.  She was adopted as a baby and relentlessly bullied at school.  She was diagnosed variously with 'oppositional defiant disorder", "borderline personality disorder" and "sadism".  Her initial incarceration was for throwing crab apples at a postal worker in a small Cape Breton town. A six month sentence in juvenile detention turned into six years of incarceration because of Ashley's pathological inability to stop acting out. In prison, Ashley Smith smeared feces on the walls, covered the cameras and windows in her cell, masturbated and auto-asphyxiated in front of the guards. She strangled herself many times a day.  She assaulted and spit on staff. She took obvious pleasure in hurting people.  I sure as hell didn't see that kid onstage today.  I saw a high-spirited, slightly awkward girl who drifted into delusion under stress. What actually happened is a lot more complex than that.

As it is currently structured, the play is too much of rant against the prison system, and not enough of an exploration of the kinds of questions the Ashley Smiths of the world invite us to consider.

How does someone get to be like Ashley in the first place? As a society, how do we offer equal protection under the law to people who repulse and enrage and exasperate and defy and disgust us?  What, if anything, can we as a society, do for someone hell-bent on destroying  both themselves and any constructive relationship they're offered?  How do we love and care for someone who refuses care, and is determined to be unlovable? When does tough love/not enabling, that is, not rewarding bad behaviour with support or attention- become abuse?

Thompson is a brilliant writer, and a fine actress but I'm not sure this was the best way to tackle such complex material.

The treatment of mentally ill people in custody is a topic worthy of exploration.  WATCHING GLORY DIE is worth seeing for what it is:  a valiant and artistically beautiful, if flawed attempt to look at the mentally ill in prison with sensitivity and compassion.

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