Review: Watching Glory Die (Canadian Rep Theatre)

Watching Glory Die is a story of a teenage girl’s struggle in prison, on stage at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre

Watching Glory Die is written and performed by Judith Thompson and is playing upstairs at Berkeley Street Theatre. The play is based on the story of Ashley Smith, a teenager who was put in prison for assault and held there until she choked herself to death with a ligature. Ashley Smith was the victim of systemic abuse and negligence and stands as a testament to the ineffective and deleterious prison system in Canada.

Watching Glory Die is presented from the perspective of three characters, all played by Thompson. Gail is a terse and bristly prison guard who views the world in black and white. While possessed of humanity, her duty and occupation limit any expression of compassion.

Glory is willful and defiant and though she has experienced unspeakable trauma, there is still something precious and innocent about her. Her consciousness dances on the border between reality and fantasy and it escapes from one to the other in the interest of self-preservation. Rosellen is Glory’s long-suffering, salt-of-the-earth mother who struggles to comprehend an unjust system while yearning for the return of her daughter.

Each character is clearly defined by costume pieces, hair, cadence and the physical space they occupy on stage. Glory clings to the walls of her prison cell because she has nowhere to go. Gail patrols the halls outside the cell in clearly marked lines of light. Rosellen commands the domestic sphere, marked by a homely wooden chair and a crocheted sweater.

Astrid Janson’s set design along with the projection design of Cameron Davis add to the sense of constriction, confinement and asphyxiation. Glory’s prison cell is small with illuminated corners and a mirror floor. The space Gail inhabits is established through André du Toit’s conservative and conscientious lighting design. Director Ken Gass’s use of the space is also conservative and careful and leaves little room for ambiguity.

My plus-one is a socially and politically astute woman whose opinion I seek on topical issues. Carolyn followed the Ashley Smith story as it unfolded and was horrified and outraged by what she learned. During our post-show debrief, we talked about how the play might benefit from a fourth perspective, that of Canadian society in general. She insisted that the audience needs to know more than just the story.

We both feel strongly that Watching Glory Die is important and that it needs to be on stage. We also feel very strongly that once roused, we as audience and as Canadians need to know what we should be doing about the scandals surrounding women in prison. We aren’t sure if it would work theatrically but an idea we had was to include a fourth perspective, one of a social justice worker who advocates on behalf of at risk women. We also thought it might be helpful to include any relevant statistics and essays in the program related to women’s conditions in prison.

In an era of increasing government suppression and dwindling support for social programs and the arts, Watching Glory Die is essential Canadian theatre. I am very excited about Canadian Rep Theatre and I look forward to its very long future of topical and provocative programming.

Details:

  • Watching Glory Die is playing at Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs (26 Berkeley Street) until June 1
  • Shows are Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm
  • Tickets are $18-$42 (some discounts for students, seniors and arts workers)
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by phone at 416-368-3110 or at the Box Office

Photo of Judith Thompson by Wendy D