Art imitates life in Judith Thompson’s Watching Glory Die. Love2 Theatre Company and impel Theatre are presenting a new production of Thompson’s 2014 play, which was inspired by the story of Ashley Smith, a mistreated and misdiagnosed mentally-ill teenager who was made to spend 1,000 days of her 1,803-day prison sentence in solitary confinement. She died in her cell in 2007 while under suicide watch at the Ontario’s Grand Valley Institution. It was 6 weeks before her scheduled release, and she died because the guards had been ordered not to intercede.
The play features Pip Dwyer, Kaitlin Race and Jennifer McEwen, and is directed by Kendra Jones. Watching Glory Die depicts the final days of Glory (Kaitlin Race), a young woman in prison. The play’s urgent, even daunting subject matter requires careful, sensitive treatment. So when McEwan and Race decided to mount the play, they sought a director who would be comfortable working with charged content in a non-naturalistic way – which Jones feels describes her “almost perfectly”: “I have a lot of experience directing solo shows, and ones that deal with really difficult subject matter; although this play isn’t a solo show, it is comprised of three characters in monologue.” Jones gravitates to the monologue because it provides such a direct way of understanding the mind and experiences of another person, and resonates with our own experiences of reality: “It is unlikely that you’ll sit and watch two or three people experience something without engaging yourself.”
The play delves into the experiences of Glory and two key women in her life. Jennifer McEwen plays Glory’s mother Rosellen, who mourns her daughter even before she has died. Pip Dwyer plays Gail, a prison guard whom Glory connects with and who is implicated in Glory’s death. The play explores the theme of isolation and interrogates how people with mental illness are treated by society and within the prison system. It challenges audiences to consider their own perceptions and sensitivities, inviting them to consider how they might have acted in such a situation – and how they are complicit in such occurrences, though they may seem far removed from their lives. In Jones’ view, the biggest challenge is ensuring that “we don’t just sympathize with the character of Glory, who is treated unfairly by the prison system, but also acknowledge the real needs and constraints of the other two characters, and the society they all live in, which enabled this thing to happen.” Of utmost importance to Jones is that the audience, as well as the actors, understand each character’s perspective and the complicated set of choices they face.
In recent years, Jones has deep-dived into plays that deal with aspects of mental illness: from Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, to Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, and a new script in development that deals with a mother whose child goes missing, and she has a psychotic break to cope with the trauma. Jones views drama as an important way for individuals to consider their relationship to mental illness, especially because it is so easy to think of those experiencing mental illness as distant or other from ourselves. Plays like Glory help to close that gap, “positioning the audience in a place of empathy, not just with the title character, Glory, who is clearly experiencing mental illness, but also with the other characters around her, who are also experiencing trauma.” With this in mind, Jones is unstinting in her praise for the play’s cast. She is thrilled to have been invited to this project, and is grateful to be collaborating with these “amazing performers”, all of whom bring a wealth of experience and thoughtfulness to their respective roles. “Their work is so rich and considerate. I hope audiences will take something from each of the perspectives they are sharing.”
Given the play’s provocative and urgent topic, and how central a place Smith’s mistreatment still holds in the popular consciousness, how should audiences prepare for the experience of Watching Glory Die? “I think just to come with an open mind,” Jones advises. While the story is influenced by the story of Ashley Smith, Jones stresses that “it is still fiction”. The events depicted are fictional, although closely aligned with certain aspects of the real events. Moreover, the ensemble’s interpretation is “physically poetic”, so audiences should not expect to see realistic sets, but rather “representations of the ideas and constraints that manifest themselves in these characters’ lives”.
Although the subject of this play is dark, audiences should not be scared off. There is a hopefulness in the way this art relates to life: “Know that we hope you’ll leave feeling some things, and thinking about some more things, and the way we relate to the world.” And part of this hopefulness is the deconstruction of distance by awareness of our essential connectedness — “not just to the people in your immediate circle, but to those in the wider community who may at first feel far away from your own experiences”.
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What: Watching Glory Die by Judith Thompson | Production Manager and Stage Manager: Marvin Arantea | Producer: Breanna Dillon | Sound Designer: John Norman | Lighting Designer: Sebastian Quinn Hoodless | Director: Kendra Jones
Cast: Pip Dwyer, Jennifer McEwen, and Kaitlin Race
When: February 19 – 29, 2020; running time: 75 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Grand Canyon Theatre, 2 Osler Street. Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: love2theatrecompany.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2020