LOVE2 Theatre Company and Impel Theatre present a cool and affecting production of Watching Glory Die, Judith Thompson’s semi-fictionalized account of Ashley Smith—the young woman who, while under video surveillance, strangled herself to death in the Grand Valley Institution for Women. Many of the details remain the same, but Thompson’s play is less concerned with chronicling the case than in examining the inner lives of three main players.
Like Smith, the fourteen year old Glory had been sent to a juvenile facility for throwing crabapples at a mailman. Some erratic behaviour lands her in isolation, and repeatedly extends her incarceration, for four years. This leads to a deteriorating mental state and her eventual death. The play is a series of interconnected monologues from Glory (Kaitlin Race), her adoptive mother, Rosellen (Jennifer McEwen), and a corrections officer named Gail (Pip Dwyer).
Of the three, Glory is the most enigmatic. So much of her text is hallucinatory, a lonely mind conjuring fantasies to help her cope with isolation. From these restless imaginings, she summons a reptile consciousness which she calls her crocodile mother. The facts of her stories are dubious yet Race’s guileless intensity disarms you completely and pulls you into the truth of her fraught reality.
Gail, on trial for criminal negligence in connection with Glory’s death, is a fascinating knot of conflicting emotions. As our window into the circumstances and culture of the institution, she grounds us—a function she’s deeply invested in, aware of our power to accept or condemn her. Dwyer shows us, with vivid nuances, Gail’s uncertain grasp on her own narrative. It is tough for her to reconcile the rational facts of her defence with a festering guilt.
In defiance of her own mother, who raised her to be polite and proper, Rosellen is a resilient and demanding presence. Determined not to let the system define her daughter, she is a fierce advocate and the most hopeful character, always seeing the best in Glory and wanting to share that vision with us. In the role, McEwan reveals her flair for persuasive, telling gestures that tug the audience into her confidence before she utters a single line.
While each of these women are very much alone in their frustration and grief, Thompson’s script and the actors convey a deep, unspoken connection. Director Kendra Jones gives this link tangible form in her intensely physical staging. She has us fixate on a length of fabric that binds all three women. As they stretch and pull, Glory is often caught within its folds, paradoxically tethered yet somehow out of reach.
Glory flounders in a punitive system that fails to adapt to her individual, unique humanness. As her destruction wreaks havoc on two other lives, the play challenges the functionality of that system and raises questions about its responsibility. The blackened cement-block walls of the venue itself support that pervading sense of oppressive, institutional structures. And some stairs, looming in the background, suggest the possibility of freedom, though even that carries menacing potential.
Perhaps Thompson’s script indicates this should be pre-recorded, but regardless: I did not find the audio of the crucial incident very compelling. This awful event is the crux of the story and yet it feels so remote here—the actors standing in tableau while Gail’s disembodied voice is heard. This pivotal scene lacks the emotional urgency of all that came before.
Disrupting that perceived boundary between performer and audience, the powerful finale of Watching Glory Die is somehow both bleak and eerily transcendent.