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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Dangerous desires, conflicting memories & a questionable verdict in Village Players’ dark, haunting Tainted Justice

Katherine Anne Fairfoul, Chris O’Bray & Rob McMullan. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

 

Did an American drifter or family secrets kill the town innkeeper? The Village Players opened their production of Don Nigro’s Tainted Justice, directed by Victoria Shepherd, at their home in the Village Playhouse last night.

Set mostly in 1914 Cape Breton, Tainted Justice criss-crosses time and space, taking us through memory and past events to such varied places as the Klondike and Winnipeg in the years leading up to 1914. Estranged from her mother Tena (Katherine Anne Fairfoul) and uncle Bill (Rob Candy), Pearl (Jess L. Callaghan) returns home to Cape Breton looking for answers. Haunted by the events surrounding her innkeeper father Ben’s (Dennis Mockler) death, Pearl is determined to learn the truth—especially regarding evidence brought to light during the subsequent trial against the inn’s American guest Frank (Chris O’Bray), who was defended by Pearl’s cousin Jim (Andrew Batten), a local celebrity lawyer. Frank was found guilty and executed. What was the nature of her mother’s relationship with the accused? And who was really responsible for her father’s death?

Through a series of conversations, moments and witness stand testimony, we learn that Frank wasn’t a stranger to Bill or Tena when he arrived in Cape Breton. But there are conflicting accounts of when and where they met him—and the coincidences of Frank just happening to meet up with them in various locations across the U.S. and Canada are dubious to say the least. As the story unfolds, we see a seedy, dark underbelly emerge among this close-knit family in this quiet town—revealing hidden suspicions, and hinting at forbidden relationships and dangerous desires. Only Jim’s quiet, sweet wife Maudie (Peta Mary Bailey) and the calm, steady Crown prosecutor Hearn (Rob McMullan) seem to be immune from the dark influences of lust and family loyalty at all costs.

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Andrew Batten & Peta Mary Bailey. Set design by Alexis Chub. Costume design by Livia Pravato-Fuchs. Lighting design by Jamie Sample. Photo by Dave A. Fitzpatrick.

This play has everything: greed, lust, murder, family secrets. And Shepherd and the cast do a great job weaving past and present, memory and dream, and complex relationships in this true Canadian crime drama. Stand-outs include Batten’s cocky but amiable Jim; a gifted defender and eloquent orator, Jim’s drinking habit and laissez-faire approach to life mask a deeply troubled soul. O’Bray does a lovely job, both charming us and keeping us guessing about Frank; a mercurial, cheeky and well-read man with a flair for storytelling, Frank is a teller of tall tales at best and a con man at worst. A drifter and opportunist with a non-violent criminal record and at least four wives back in the States, like Jim says, Frank’s not the kind of guy you’d want marrying your sister. But is he a murderer?

Fairfoul’s Tena is a seductive cypher, also keeping us on our toes. Intelligent and beautiful, Tena is an ambitious businesswoman whose deepest desires run beyond real estate. There’s an edgy desperate housewife vibe and a dark air mystery about her. Did she bewitch Frank into doing her bidding? And Candy’s Bill is a complex combination of affable generosity and raging jealousy. Bill clearly loves his sister Tena very much and would do anything for her, including introducing her to the man who would become her husband (the murdered innkeeper Ben). But what exactly is the nature of that relationship—and are those feelings mutual?

With shouts to the design team for their work on bringing the past and present worlds of this haunting period crime drama to life on the small Village Playhouse stage: Alexis Chubb (set), Livia Pravato-Fuchs (costume), Jamie Sample (lighting) and John Stuart Campbell (sound and music composition). And to director Shepherd for orchestrating the multiple interwoven scenes and relationships as the characters traverse time and place.

Tainted Justice continues at the Village Playhouse until March 24. Advance tickets available online or by calling 416-767-7702. In the meantime, be sure to check out the promo video on the show page, featuring director Victoria Shepherd.

 

Toronto Fringe: Love, joy & taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project

A rabbi, a minister and a priest walk into a theatre…

Happy Fringe, guys! I started my Toronto Fringe adventures with the opening of Soulo Theatre’s production of The Clergy Project, directed by Tracey Erin Smith, which played to a sold-out house and a standing ovation last night at First Narayever Congregation.

It’s no secret that I love this show; I’ve seen two previous incarnations, most recently in November 2016 at Revival. For Fringe, the show has a BYOV arrangement—and the show sold out its entire run before it even opened!

City Shul Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, First Unitarian Congregation minister Reverend Shawn Newton and Anglican priest Reverend Daniel Brereton took Tracey’s Soulo Theatre solo show workshop—in a class specifically designed to create a space for members of the clergy to tell their stories. Realizing they had much in common despite their different titles and faith backgrounds, the three clergy took a different path from the usual solo show class presentation at the end of the workshop; The Clergy Project is the fruit of their combined labours, weaving in and out of their three individual personal stories.

From the hilarious faith-specific lightbulb jokes, to recounting the call to ministry, to sharing the challenges they face—including situations not covered in their seminary days—to their reasons for doing what they do, all three share the real-life experiences of their jobs with candor and humour. The combination of personalities makes the show:  the shit-disturbing, kick-ass Elyse; Shawn with the wry wit and a twinkle in his eye; and the cheeky, playful Daniel. The frank, funny, heartbreaking—and ultimately inspiring—storytelling reveals their shared attributes of sass, determination and empathy. And the Fringe version has an additional hysterically funny tale from Daniel about his experience directing his first Christmas pageant!

Delivered with heart, soul, humour, and a genuine desire to connect and share personal stories, The Clergy Project is less about religion and more about the humanity of those who minister—aptly illustrating what Tracey Erin Smith and Soulo Theatre are all about. Like Smith says, “Everyone has a story.”

Love, joy and taming dragons in the funny, frank, moving The Clergy Project.

The Clergy Project continues at First Narayever Congregation until July 16, with performances on July 6, 12 and 13 at 8pm, and July 9 and 16 at 4pm. The run is sold out, but if you get there early, you can get yourself on the waiting list (some folks got in last night). The 90-minute showtime includes a brief post-show talkback.

 

Memory, loss & insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill

After launching Stories Like Crazy with their inaugural podcast at the beginning of Mental Health Week, Adrianna Prosser and Lori Lane Murphy finished off the week with two real-life solo shows that “stomp on stigma and set fire to adult colouring books”: Lane Murphy’s Upside Down Dad and Prosser’s Everything but the Cat. The double bill ran for two nights this past weekend at Red Sandcastle Theatre, with a portion of the ticket sales going to CMHA’s #GetLoud campaign.

Singer songwriter, and member of the Cheap Wine Collective (and Adrianna’s brother), Luke Prosser opened the two evenings with an acoustic set of fiercely passionate, introspective indie originals and a few covers, including an awesome version of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wrap your ears around his evocative, raspy blues-infused sound on Soundcloud.

Upside Down Dad (directed by Christopher Lane). Part memoir, part homage, Lane Murphy reminisces about growing up in the 70s with Warner Brothers cartoons, navigating teenage milestones and living with a clinically depressed dad who was by all appearances a happy, fun guy. Childhood memories of being goofy and putting on cartoon voices in an attempt to bring her father out of bouts of profound sadness turn into more urgent and impactful moments in adulthood, where she continued to act as caregiver, driving him to treatment appointments and then being by his bedside when he was dying from leukemia.

Running parallel to her experience of her father’s mental illness is the growing realization of her own—from following her dad’s early example of self-medicating with alcohol to her own personal turning point, supported by him to find a healthier way to deal. And her support of his journey adds new insight to her own.

A genuine and engaging storyteller, Lane Murphy takes us from moments of laughter to tears—and some wacky, bizarre moments—as she chronicles her kindred spirit relationship with her dad. And her story highlights how important conversation is to insight, acceptance and healing—denying or ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.

Everything but the Cat (directed by Stephanie Ouaknine). A personal exploration of loss and grief, Prosser tells the story of losing her younger brother Andrew to suicide and her already shaky relationship with her boyfriend on the same day. Profound grief is peppered with second guesses and guilt, and coupled with gut-wrenching abandonment as her Peter Pan boyfriend, who already has one foot out the door, decides he can’t deal with this, or any, level of commitment.

A multi-media solo show that incorporates projected images (original projections by Ouaknine, with additional projections by Jason Martorino), Everything but the Cat includes shadow acting and voice-over work by Maksym Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Brad Emes, Hannah Barnett-Kemper Shkvorets, Erik Buchanan, Andrew Hodwitz, Scott Emerson Moyle, Devin Upham, Eden Bachelder, Stephanie Ouaknine, Daniel Legault, Niles Anthony, Gaj Mariathasan, Tammy Everett, AJ LaFlamme, Jason Martorino, Val Adriaanse, Jordi Hepburn and Phil Rickaby. Bringing moments of the story to life in creative and innovative ways—from learning the news of her brother from her dad, to grief-stricken/-propelled experiences of throwing herself into the club and dating scene—the projected images and lit areas evoke time, place and, most importantly, emotional state.

Infusing her story with edgy comedy and sharply pointed observation, Prosser gives a brave, bold, deeply vulnerable and ultimately entertaining performance that not only takes us along, but inside, her journey.

Memory, loss and insight—true stories of living with mental illness in the funny, poignant Stories Like Crazy double bill.

Stories Like Crazy’s evening of solo shows closed last night, but you can hear more true stories about mental health and living with mental illness—opening conversation and busting stigma—on the Stories Like Crazy podcast, hosted by Prosser and Lane Murphy. You can also keep up with Stories Like Crazy on Twitter.

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

a-better-place
Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.

SummerWorks: Bittersweet, heartbreaking & hopeful true story of mental illness in Bitter Medicine

Bitter-Medicine-dedication1-620x500What happens when your seemingly average, regular family is touched by mental illness and suicide?

Bitter Medicine, a true story written by Clem Martini – based on the graphic novel of the same title by Martini and his brother Oliver – and directed for this SummerWorks production by Patrick Finn, gives a first-person account of the family’s experience, with a particular focus on the relationship between Clem and Oliver (Liv), and told by Clem (played by Brian Smith).

Having lost their youngest brother Ben to schizophrenia and suicide, it is unthinkable that another brother would suddenly find himself living with the condition. And, as Clem tells us at one point in the play, once your family has experienced suicide, it haunts you and results in hyper-vigilance when another family member is diagnosed with mental illness.

Clem and Liv’s story highlights the need for patient advocacy, especially in a society – and even a health care system – that makes assumptions about the mentally ill. And we are also reminded that pharma companies don’t always have patients’ best interests at heart, as illustrated in Clem’s battle to get Liv diagnosed when he became gravely ill; turns out the pharma company that manufactured the meds he was on hadn’t disclosed the possible side effect of diabetes.

Smith is a compelling storyteller, speaking as Clem, as Liv’s illustrations play across the screen behind him (scenography design by Anton de Groot), the family’s loss made poignantly visual when we see one person missing from the original family portrait of six (Ben is gone).

Bitter Medicine is a bittersweet, heartbreaking and hopeful journey of family love and support, and finding a way to live with mental illness.

This was Bitter Medicine’s closing performance in SummerWorks at the Lower Ossington Theatre – but keep an eye out for this show. It’s important that people hear these stories to gain understanding and empathy for the individuals and families living with mental illness – and to not define any person by his/her condition.

SummerWorks: Brave & sharp memoir in Women Who Shout at the Stars

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA straight-talking, no-nonsense cockney woman, a former scullery maid turned nanny. A vivacious, suicidal socialite mother who loves gin and the works of Dorothy Parker. A sensitive and creative young woman, raised, influenced and loved by both of these women.

Women Who Shout at the Stars, written and performed by Carolyn Hetherington, and directed by Kathryn MacKay, with dramaturgy by Judith Thompson, is a journey through the lives and loves of three women, intersecting and weaving together across time and an ocean, played out on the Theatre Passe Muraille main stage as part of SummerWorks.

Told through monologue, anecdote and correspondence, Hetherington’s three real-life characters each shift from first-person to second-person narrative, morphing into each other, at times interacting in dialogue. The stage, with its two arm chairs and side tables, a red silk jacket hanging between them upstage, separate the two worlds of mother Gwen and nanny Edie, with Hetherington crossing between them – and as them – and into her younger self. The atmosphere is intimate, and the audience is taken into the confidences of each woman as thoughts, feelings and secrets are revealed. You feel like you’re sitting across from each of them, sharing a cup of tea or a glass of gin as each reminisces aloud. Now in her early 80s, Hetherington is remarkable in this performance, with its range of emotion and storytelling – not to mention stamina.

These three women have a lot of story to tell – and I wonder how a pared down version would hone the focus of the storytelling. Still, Women Who Shout at the Stars is a bittersweet, sharp – at times archly funny – memoir.

The show runs at the TPM main space until Sun, Aug 17 – check here for exact dates/times.