Review: The Glory of Living (Sterling Studio Theatre Collective)

Clint, Lisa & Kelly LG

The Glory of Living explores the triumph of death at Toronto’s Sterling Studio Theatre

Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living is a play about death, murder, and capital punishment. I went into Sterling Studio Theatre’s (SST’s) production of the famous play not really considering the juxtaposition of the happy name and the unhappy subject matter. Leaving the theatre it was the first question on my mind. How is a title like this supposed to shape my reading of a play that left me a little overwhelmed and depressed?

SST’s production is an obvious critique of capital punishment and a less obvious questioning of when “living” is glorified, and when it is denied – or more specifically, who can be denied the glory of living.

In a play where death comes easily and lazily and is present in every scene without ever needing to be shown, it seems all modes of living are allowed a certain glory simply because they succeed at not dying. The actual substance of one’s life seems to be less important than the notion that if, socially, we are going to value life, we must value all life.

The life in contention in The Glory of Living is Lisa’s (Carleigh Beverly). We are introduced to her as a 15 year old girl watching what sounds like the Disney movie Bambi while her mother “entertains a client” behind a curtain in the same room.

At the same time we meet Clint (Adam Lolacher), a friend of “the client,” along for the ride.

It’s a powerful first scene. We watch, a little bewildered, as Clint, who is unspecifically-aged but definitely a decade or so older than 15, takes a liking to the seemingly innocent if not angsty Lisa. Their dialogue mingles with the sounds of Bambi on the TV, and the screams of joy of Lisa’s mother and the man with her. Director Sohpie Ann Rooney did a spectacular job of setting this up.

The next scene finds Clint and Lisa several years later, married and comfortably settled into their rape-murder routine. It quickly becomes evident that they are very much in love, and that Clint is abusive and controlling.

The play does not claim to be based on any true story, but is known for its similarities to the real life notorious serial killer wife and husband Judith Ann and Alvin Neely. Judith was the youngest woman sentenced to the electric chair in the United States. There was, and still is, a lot of controversy surrounding this sentence, and whether Judith was the aggressor she was convicted of being, or the victim she claimed her husband made her.

SST’s production seems to posit that Lisa is likely both, but that it doesn’t really matter – she is still as human and as fleshy, sad, scared, hurt, and struggling as her victims. The difference is not in their living, but in their dying. Lisa’s victims’ deaths are tragedies while her death sentence is justified, ordained.

The play has a lot of strengths. There are some truly disturbing and moving scenes, and Clint and Lisa’s moments alone are beautiful, memorable, uncomfortable. The two actors work really well together, and the play rides on the chemistry they create.

To believe that Lisa would do what she does for Clint, and to question her position as agressor/victim – the mystery at the center of the plot, and at Judith’s real-life trial – depends entirely on the staging of Clint and Lisa’s relationship. These two actors have a hard job of making us believe that such murkiness could exist between their characters, and they succeed.

The play is somewhat like a murder mystery from which all the clues have been removed. Every scene that could have revealed Lisa’s true intentions is only talked about, never shown. I suppose this is just like a trial, with the audience sitting in as jury – none of us were there to witness the crimes, we only have Clint the rapist’s word against Lisa the murderer’s.

Obviously this play has given me much to contemplate.

However, something about the production as a whole fell short of my expectations, but I’m not sure what it was. I left the theatre feeling like I had missed something, so perhaps I did. I did have very high expectations – I entered knowing I was about to see an award-winning play, and I left wondering what had made this script is so revered.

It might be the context. In Canada we have no death penalty so this kind of cultural critique doesn’t resonate like it might have in the States. This makes the second act feel a little lackluster after all the drama and horror the first act built.

It could also be that, for whatever reason, I was never quite sure if I sympathized with Lisa. I was never sure if I should, or if I wanted to. Because of this, the final scene didn’t carry the weight for me that it was meant to.

It could simply have been that I was seeing it on the oft-anxious opening night.

Regardless, in the end, I think even my reaction contributes to the discussion this play intends to engage. Look at the engaged review cum essay it inspired me to write!

This is not the sort of production that left me feeling excited and full and satisfied. It has left a very different impression on me, but it has certainly left one. The Glory of Living is something I find myself still trying to sort out, still wondering about the meaning of, and wanting to see again to search for more clues.

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Photo of Adam Lolacher, Carleigh Beverly, and Candice Mausner by Inside Light Studio: Angela Besharah

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