It’s easy – even artless – to create empathy for likable people. The challenge for writers, directors, and actors is to create empathy for people you would never wish to associate with, people you may actively dislike. That challenge is taken up by writer-director Judith Thompson in Windsor Feminist Theatre’s production of Watching Glory Die.
We are introduced to Glory (Nathanya Barnett), an 18-year-old woman trapped in prison. Devoutly antisocial, Glory repeatedly racks up more jail time for minor infractions – throwing crabapples, insulting guards, spitting. She loses things she needs to occupy her time, such as pencils and paper. Even tampons are forbidden to her lest she use them – somehow – to hang herself. The trouble is, the more time Glory spends desperate and bored and alone in her cell, the more she struggles to control herself. Her mind is fraying – to the point where she seems to sincerely believe her birth mother is a crocodile who calls to her from a swamp only she can see.
Glory is watched over by a correctional officer named Gail (Katheryn Haggis), who, despite her frustrations, has grown fond of Glory and wants to help her. Back at home, Glory’s resolute adoptive mother Rosellen (Kelli Fox) waits for the day her daughter finally returns, reminiscing about happy memories and railing against the penal system.
Anyone familiar with the true story upon which Watching Glory Die is based knows that Glory dies in her cell. The play forces us to witness why and how, and demands we reflect on what her tragic end says about our society, the collective responsibility we share for the well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, and the necessity of empathizing with those we other.
The story is told primarily through a series of monologues, each character occupying her own space on the stage – Glory in her cell, Gail at her desk, Rosellen in her living room. This approach highlights the isolation each character feels, their worry that they are being left to fend for themselves, and their desperate need for understanding. The play is about Glory, yes. It is also about the conflicts Gail and Rosellen face because of Glory’s situation – including the role each woman plays in the events that lead to Glory’s death. No one gets off easy – not even the audience. Indeed, the script takes pains to ensure we don’t miss our own complicity in Glory’s fate.
The acting – especially by Fox – is often captivating, authentic, even beautiful. Although the structure and style of the script lean into artifice, the cast injects tremendous humanity into the proceedings. Barnett, as Glory, faces the most difficult challenge, not only because her character is an antisocial delinquent, but because the script calls for her to bounce from childlike enthusiasm, to insolent rage, to outright delusion – each state of her being requiring a unique physicality. I do hope to see more of her on Windsor stages in the coming years.
Watching Glory Die will head to the Edinborough Fringe Festival from Aug 1 to 25.