“Let us no longer be bystanders:” the last line of Judith Thompson’s director’s note for her latest production of Watching Glory Die is haunting. Her thought-provoking play implores the same message through the voices of three women, all being devoured by a system designed to swallow them whole. Based on the true story of the death of Ashley Smith at the Grand Valley Institute in 2007, Watching Glory Die explores the heartbreaking reality faced by young women in the penitentiary system.
The set is nice and simple, a homey chair and table in Glory’s mother’s living room, the Desk of Gale the Security Guard and then the desolation that is Glory’s cell. This allows for full focus on the story of these women and the events leading up to Glory’s death. The performances are nothing short of astounding. Nathanya Barnett shines as Glory; every ounce of her pain and loneliness is so deftly embodied. Every time Glory was visited by her “crocodile mother”, it’s eyes eerily staring at the audience as well, or when she’d so desperately call out for her Mama, my heart shattered. Kelli Fox plays Rosellen, Glory’s mother. Rosellen aches for her daughter, and honestly is trapped by the system just as much as Glory is, perpetually waiting and worrying about what was happening to Glory all while being denied information from the penitentiary. Fox brings so much heart and depth to the role, she’s marvelous. The physical connection between Glory and her mother was beautiful, and yet that closeness also means that Rosellen shares in Glory’s pain, which is so difficult to witness. Kathryn Haggis plays Gale, the security guard at Grand Valley and who’s responsible for Glory’s ward. We watch as Gale struggles between her conscience and her duty; what she’s been told to do and what she knows is right. Haggis brings these struggles to life in such a way that makes you love, hate, and pity her character all at once. It’s truly a stellar cast who breathes such life and truth into these roles; it’s a heavy story to tell, but they tell it with such grace and artistry.
A unique aspect to this production was the inclusion of a song, Glory’s Theme, based on one of the poems Ashley Smith wrote in prison and which inspired Thompson to write the play. Composed and sung by Kianna Porter and Aaron Hrastovec, the song adds to the haunting reminder of the reality of the play.
This particular adaptation of Watching Glory Die has a unique Windsor connection as well. On March 10, 2017 Judith Thompson was in Windsor to do a staged reading of Watching Glory Die as a part of a larger visit surrounding the University Player’s Production of A Lion in the Streets, another one of Thompson’s famous works. At that reading, Thompson stopped part way through the play and asked for volunteers to help her read, to try a three person approach to the text. It was from that genesis that this production was born. I was so pleased to see it come to such glorious fruition as I had been in the Hatch Studio Theatre the day the idea was born.
Watching Glory Die is an absolute must see. It runs tonight through Saturday night, all at 7:30pm at the Hatch Studio Theatre in the Jackman Centre for the Performing Arts on the University of Windsor Campus. You can purchase tickets at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/watching-glory-die-tickets-60317341793?fbclid=IwAR30owdys_dIj6lxMMSTVfszWJTsYt9jNi6D0fnUhCEv0s0tHjRbJTRHN28
Cover photo obtained from Windsor Feminist Theatre’s Facebook page.