True story inspires one-woman play about justice system

Playwright Judith Thompson’s compassion protrudes

By Julia Siedlanowska, Staff Writer

Judith Thompson tackles difficult subject matter yet again with fantastically clear characters placed in situations lacking a definitive moral solution. Written by Thompson and directed by Ken Gass, Watching Glory Die is the story of a young criminal offender named Glory, who struggles to maintain her sanity, her identity, and her hold on life and reality in prison. The most striking thing about this play is that it’s inspired by the true story of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who died in an Ontario prison in 2007.

Thompson plays all the roles in this one-woman show, telling the story through the eyes of three female characters: Glory, her mother Rosellen, and a female prison guard named Gail.

As Rosellen tells the story of how her adopted daughter went to juvie for throwing an apple at the postman, she unfurls the dilemma at the heart of the modern justice system: does it create the criminal? In this instance, as we see the young girl in jail for five years for minor and questionable offences, it’s clear that it does.

Although Thompson is a well-renowned Canadian playwright, she does a fantastic job as the sole actor in this production. Her compassion is evident in all her works. Her most famous is her first production, The Crackwalker, inspired by a summer job as a social worker in Kingston, Ontario. Compassion and an inability to ignore marginalized individuals is evident throughout her works.

In Watching Glory Die, she uses the same abstract and absurd poetic imagery that flavours the minds of her most desperate characters. Five years into her prison sentence, Glory struggles to find any outside validation for her existence and winds up strangling herself several times a day. In the lonely hallucinations inside her prison cell comes some of Thompson’s most image-rich text. Glory tells us of her imaginary “Crocodile mother,” with her crocodile eyes peering at her. These are some of my favourite scenes.

The script and acting are aided by the fantastic set, projections, lighting, and sound design. The only set pieces are a large, three-walled cell with a mirrored floor and white ceiling, and a chair stage left of it. When Glory is in the cell, Thompson transforms completely into a young, withering girl. This is no doubt in part to the clever change in atmosphere that the set creates. When the camera in the corner of the cell picks up a black-and-white image of Thomson and projects it onto the wall, we are able to see her from the prison guard’s perspective. All angles of the story are told, not only through Thompson’s ability as an actor, but also through pointed use of the stage technology. All elements are working together as they should.

The only ingredients that distracted were the shoes. Switching from the character of the mother to that of the guard was plagued by a change in footwear that albeit told us something about each woman but also interrupted the action and looked clumsy.

In Watching Glory Die, Thompson successfully tells a story that may otherwise have gone unheard. Although the subject matter is not unknown to us, Thompson yet again structures it in a way that makes the tale louder. She cloaks it in a language that burns images into our minds that will last longer than simple facts picked up through news media.

Pictured above: Judith Thompson as Glory (Photo by Wendy D Photography)