Shaken faith & lost innocence in Soulpepper’s haunting yet hopeful Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott

Berkley Silverman & Dan Mousseau. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Sue LePage. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

A town divided in the aftershock of the tragic rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl; and subsequent adult trial and conviction of a 14-year-old classmate. A journalist doggedly pursuing the truth, casting doubt on the efficacy of law enforcement in the case and belief in the fairness of the local justice system. Soulpepper’s production of Beverley Cooper’s Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott, directed by Jackie Maxwell, examines the impact of this tragic case on those close to these two young people, the town and the public at large. The show opened last night to a packed house at the Young Centre.

The perception of a quiet, safe life in Clinton, Ontario was shattered when 12-year-old Lynne Harper went missing on June 9, 1959; her lifeless body found two days later in the woods just outside of town. In a stunning aftershock, her 14-year-old classmate Steven Truscott was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to death for her rape and murder—dividing the town’s residents; and casting extreme doubt on Truscott’s character, as well as the law enforcement and local court handling the case.

Our narrator to the events leading up to and following this tragic event is Sarah (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), the only fictitious character in the play. It is through her lens as classmate of the well-liked, athletic Steven Truscott (Dan Mousseau) that we get a glimpse into this time and place. Speaking to us as an adult, she turns over memories, and conflicting thoughts and emotions in her mind, as she guides us through the barrage of information, misinformation and gossip about the unthinkable death of Lynne Harper (the young Berkley Silverman), and the shock of Steven’s subsequent trial and conviction.

Lead investigator, OPP inspector Harold Graham (John Jarvis), chooses to focus on the changeable testimony of two minors: Butch George (Caroline Gillis) and Jocelyne Gaudet (Akosua Amo-Adem), whose testimony conflicts with other children the police interviewed, like Dougie Oates (Christef Desir), who saw Steven giving Lynne a ride on his bike. Compounding the misinformation of this selective culling of largely child witness testimony are the findings of pathologist Dr. John Penistan (Deborah Drakeford), who examined Harper’s stomach contents to determine time of death. And, for some reason, the trial is held locally, offering little in the way of an unbiased jury, for which only men have been selected. Assumptions and prejudice abound. The authority of police, doctors and judges is not questioned. And there are two distinct class divides in the town: long-time residents vs. local air force base personnel and officers vs. non-coms. And a further divide develops: those who believe in Truscott’s innocence and those who believe him guilty. Interestingly, Lynne’s father (Jarvis) was an officer and Steven’s father Dan (John Cleland) was a non-com.

Journalist/writer Isabel LeBourdais (Nancy Palk) appears on the scene, ruffling skeptics’ feathers and providing hope for supporters with interviews about Truscott’s case. Her investigation and subsequent 1966 book The Trial of Steven Truscott shines a spotlight on holes in the investigation, calling into question the work of investigators and the fairness of the trial. Rumours of misdirection and cover-up emerge. Through the tireless efforts of supporters, particularly Truscott’s mother Doris (Gillis) and LeBourdais, Truscott’s case is revived—in public consciousness and in the legal system. Truscott’s original sentence is commuted to life in prison a year after his conviction; he is paroled in 1966 and acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2007.

Innocence Lost, Soulpepper
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Sue LePage. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sharply detailed, respectful work from the ensemble; the women in this story feature prominently, with some particular stand-outs in the cast. Ch’ng Lancaster does a brilliant job with the conflicted Sarah; torn between her admiration of Steven, and the myriad voices supporting and damning him, Sarah finds her own faith shaken—and like Peter, even denies knowing Steven. Longing to put some distance between herself and the town, and its accompanying nightmare of memory, she travels across the country to university, only to find people talking about the case. Drakeford does an outstanding job, juggling multiple characters with both dramatic and comedic flair: Sarah’s gossip-mongering, opinionated mother; the arrogant Dr. Penistan; and hilarious turns as a harried Brownie pack leader and a put-upon front-row student. Palk shines as the intrepid LeBourdais; affable but nobody’s fool, LeBourdais questions authority—in this case, the male power system responsible for incarcerating Truscott—pointing out inaccuracies, conflicts and omissions in testimony, and the circumstantial nature of the evidence, and putting those involved in the case on the hot seat.

Shouts to the design team for their work in conjuring this time and place. Doris Day’s Que Sera, Sera brings a dark bit of whimsy to the pre-show music (sound design by John Gzowski), adding a touch of nostalgia along with the vintage costumes (costumes by Sue LePage). The stand of tall, narrow trees that dominates the dimly lit set provides a haunting, hazy atmosphere and doubles as the bars of Truscott’s jail cell (set design by Camellia Koo and lighting design by Bonnie Beecher).

Innocence Lost is as much about Truscott’s lost childhood as it is about the shaken faith of a town and its people. All that had been trusted and taken for granted as true and good—the town’s safety, the police, the courts and Truscott’s character—dissected, questioned and turned upside down. Assumptions, prejudices, hearsay and bias create an environment of skepticism, mistrust and denial; favourite childhood places become poisoned in memory. And faith, hope and love put the story of his role on that tragic day back on track.

Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott continues in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until June 23. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out Maija Kappler’s piece on Innocence Lost, including an interview with playwright Beverley Cooper, in Intermission Magazine.

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Passion, reason & Canada’s tumultuous Camelot couple in timeshare productions’ stellar Maggie & Pierre

 

 

Kaitlyn Riordan. Set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photo by Stephen Wild.

 

He pirouetted with taut panache. She spun with child-like joy. And we fell in love with them both. timeshare productions presents Maggie & Pierre, by Linda Griffiths with Paul Thompson, in the Tarragon Theatre Workspace, directed by Rob Kempson and starring Kaitlyn Riordan.

Famously performed by the late actor/playwright Linda Griffiths, there’s well-deserved buzz about a passing of the torch in Canadian theatre with this production, as Riordan (also AD of Shakespeare in the Ruff and an emerging playwright herself) takes on this one-woman powerhouse of a play, portraying Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Maggie Sinclair and Henry (a reporter following their story).

Henry is our tour guide of sorts, a newspaper reporter who confesses his fascination with this unusual, unlikely relationship, and can’t refuse a request to follow their story. Part of what makes their love story so compelling is the unlikely nature of Maggie and Pierre’s relationship—and not just because of the 30-year age difference. He, a highly intellectual, political animal determined to create a Canada in the image of his idea of a Just Society; and she, an effervescent young woman navigating a world of social change from her well brought up, ‘good girl’ background to the freedom and exploration of the flower child movement, and burgeoning mental illness/mental health advocate. We witness the two seeming opposites in their mutual attraction; following their love affair and marriage from honeymoon period to disillusionment and dissolution—the public’s romance with them running parallel with their own.

Maggie & Pierre
Kaitlyn Riordan as Maggie, Henry and Pierre. Set and costume design by Jung-Hye Kim. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photos by Greg Wong.

With physical, verbal and energetic precision, Riordan delivers a stellar performance, shifting seamlessly from one character to another—at times during quick exchanges. As Henry, she gives us a hard-nosed, jaded newspaper scribe; more than a bit embarrassed, like the rest of us, he’s silly in love with Maggie and Pierre and can’t look away. A conflicted professional witness to the relationship, he’s torn between the drive to report what he observes, no matter how unflattering, and the instinct to protect their reputation. Her Pierre is dashing, charismatic and arrogant; and she nails the tight, academic bearing and razor sharp mind. Pierre is the reason in this equation, while Maggie is the passion. Riordan’s Maggie is a lovely mess of self-discovery, confusion, enrapture and authenticity. While there’s humour in her fish out of water experience of the old boys’ world of politics and requisite social events—her increasing discomfort being under the international spotlight is heartbreaking to witness as we realize the toll it’s taking on a fragile soul.

Maggie & Pierre is as much about emerging Canadian identity and our fascination with celebrity as it is about the tumultuous relationship between two seemingly polar opposites. The writing and storytelling style is aptly Canadian: irreverent, insightful, good-humoured and also compassionate. With a luminous performance that’s as captivating, entertaining and charming as the story Riordan’s telling, we can’t look away.

Maggie & Pierre continues in the Tarragon Workspace until May 19; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space and an outstanding show, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Coming up: timeshare’s production of Maggie & Pierre will be featured in the Grand Theatre’s (London, ON) 2018/19 season, with a short run February 12-16, 2019.

Update: cowbell is back!

Hey all –

A quick update to confirm that, after being on hiatus since mid-July, the cowbell blog is back in business!

My contract at Nightwood Theatre wrapped up on Friday, and I’m now settling back into freelance copy editing and writing, as well as helping out with marketing at Nightwood going forward, and continuing to do voice-over auditions while I ponder my next steps.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed covering Toronto’s amazing local theatre scene until I covered three shows last week – it was a tiring week of long days and posting during my lunch break, but also very exciting and energizing.

Looking forward to seeing more theatre. What are you seeing this week?

Keep on supporting local theatre!

Cheers, Cate