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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Toronto Fringe NSTF: Deeply moving, interwoven look at the faces of loss & coping in Piece by Piece

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Mary Francis Moore & Virgilia Griffith in Piece by Piece

The loss of a loved one – to death, cognitive illness or break-up – is hard on everyone, especially on those who are left behind.

The McGuffin Company explores loss and coping in Alison Lawrence’s Piece by Piece, directed by David Ferry and running at the Factory Theatre Mainspace as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival.

The play is anchored by Steffi (Virgilia Griffith), a teen who has recently lost her mother to illness and her grief-stricken father Bert (Brian Young) to alcohol. Finding herself unable to return to school, Steffi returns daily to the ICU where her mother died – and this is where the interwoven stories of the play converge: Frank (Terrence Bryant), a professor who’s lost his mind to Alzheimer’s, and his wife Barb (Linda Goranson), who’s at her wit’s end looking after her changed husband; and geriatric specialist John (John Cleland), on Frank’s health care team, who’s dealing with a loss of his own – his wife Jessie’s (Mary Francis Moore) multiple miscarriages and behavioural changes, and the subsequent distance between them.

The ensemble does a remarkable job navigating the complex character relationships and responses as the stages of grief play out in various scenarios – with simmering rage, biting anger, dark humour and inconsolable tears – and revelations for each other and for themselves emerge.

Griffith is outstanding as Steffi, a smart-ass kid who’s wise beyond her years, her tough guy exterior masking the heartbroken child beneath – and her frank, often irreverent and humourous, monologues carry the audience through the process from her point of view and add context to the scenes that follow. Young does a nice job as her pathetically self-involved father Bert, who you can’t help but feel bad for as he stumbles around within his grief, even as he ignores his daughter while finding solace at the bottom of a tall boy. Bryant brings a lovely fragile quality to Frank, a once highly articulate and intelligent man whose mind has lost its way; and Goranson captures the complex layers of an exhausted wife struggling with her own frustration and pain as she tries to cope with his deteriorating condition – losing a beloved husband of 47 years before her eyes while he’s still alive. No doormat, Barb has chutzpah, but must come to the realization that she can’t function alone in this. Moore is edgy, raw and heartbreaking as Jessie, who distracts herself with the tragedies of others to avoid living in her own; and Cleland’s John is nicely understated as her supportive and struggling husband, spending as much time and energy trying to get Jessie to confront her mental health issues as he does on quashing his own anger and sense of futility.

Beyond the personal experience of coping with the loss of a loved one, Piece by Piece is about how those who are left behind lose themselves in the process – bit by bit, they change and nothing will ever be the same. It’s about finding support and community in order to move on. Each feels alone in his/her pain, but they can’t – and must not – get through it alone.

Piece by Piece is a deeply moving, interwoven look at the many faces of loss and coping.

Piece by Piece runs until Sun, Jan 18 – you can book tix ahead online.