Theater Review: Tragic history makes for powerful theaterBy Jim LoweProvided photo
A friend (Pippa Leslie) confronts Sarah (Jenny Young), right, in Centaur Theatre’s “Innocence Lost.” The Montreal venue will present the play through Feb. 24.
On a summer evening in 1959, in Clinton, Ontario, 12-year-old Lynne Harper was last seen riding on the handlebars of 14-year-old Steven Truscott’s bicycle.
The following day she was found in a bush, raped and murdered, strangled by her own blouse.
A few days later, Truscott was charged with first-degree murder and was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Truscott maintained his innocence throughout, but it took multiple appeals, including one of a Canadian Supreme Court ruling, before his conviction was overturned by an appeals court 48 years later in 2007.
Truscott’s story is told in Beverly Cooper’s searing 2008 play, “Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott,” which opened Thursday in a powerful and deeply moving production at the Centaur Theatre, Montreal’s foremost English-language theater.
Rural Clinton was home to a Royal Canadian Air Force base where there were already deep divides between the various factions in the community. Still, the community’s youth enjoyed a normal and even carefree childhood until this tragedy changed everything.
Steven Truscott was an athletic but shy kid and well liked. As the last known person to see Lynne Harper alive, he became the prime suspect. All of the evidence was circumstantial, and it turned out the police ignored any statements that contradicted those pointing to Truscott’s guilt. A local jury unanimously found him guilty but asked for leniency because of his age.
Still, the judge sentenced him to death — making him the youngest person ever on Canada’s death row. Because of public outcry over Truscott’s age, his sentence was commuted to life, and he remained imprisoned for another 10 years — all the time maintaining his innocence.
In 1966, a book by Isabel LeBourdais, “The Trial of Steven Truscott,” questioned the rapid police investigation and trial. Her argument that the court had sentenced an innocent child to death made headlines and sparked demonstrations. Still, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to uphold the verdict.
In 2000, CBC’s “The Fifth Estate” broadcast a documentary that included new evidence and brought into question the pathologist’s report that set the time of death — the very testimony that convicted Truscott. And though the pathologist revised his testimony, it wasn’t until 2007 that the Ontario Court of Appeal threw out the conviction.
In 2008, Truscott was awarded $6.5 million in compensation. (For more of this fascinating story, go online to www.cbc.ca/news/background/truscott/.)
Cooper’s play, which premiered at the 2008 Blyth (Ontario) Festival, is a riveting retelling of this tragic tale that accurately fleshes out the major characters with sensitivity. Although told through a fictional character, a classmate of Truscott’s named Sarah, much of the dialog was taken from court transcripts, LeBourdais’ book and other historical research. The result is powerful and poignant storytelling.
The Centaur’s compelling production, directed by the theater’s artistic director, Roy Surette, is a co-production with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, where it goes next. The universally excellent cast was taken from the NAC English Theatre Acting Company.
Sarah, the play’s pivotal character, was given an unusually dimensional and convincing performance by Jenny Young, from an innocent teen with a crush on Truscott, to a confused member of the “mob” believing in his guilt, to a mother of her own 14-year old — forced to question her conclusions.
Pippa Leslie was especially touching as Sarah’s friend who doubts Truscott’s guilt, and thinks Sarah should as well.
Fiona Reid delivered author Isabel LeBourdais with authority, a refreshing breath of sanity in this tragedy. Trevor Barrette as Truscott was a bit supercilious for a 14-year-old in the beginning, but became much more convincing as events got serious. Julie Tamiko Manning offered a particularly sensitive performance as Truscott’s always-believing mother.
Most of the cast plays multiple roles, often in tableaux. Though this tool is often distracting in lesser plays, here it effectively allowed for an easier and more comfortable dissemination of a lot of information.
The effective abstract set by James Lavoie, who was also responsible for the period costumes, benefited from projections that enhanced the menacing atmosphere.
Lighting by Luc Prairie and original music and sound design by Keith Thomas completed the turgid atmosphere.
Centaur Theatre’s “Innocence Lost” proved to be provoking and deeply moving theater — well worth a trip to Montreal.
The Centaur Theatre presents “Innocence Lost: A Play about Steven Truscott,” by Beverly Cooper, Jan. 29 to Feb. 24, at its playhouse, 453 St-François-Xavier in Old Montreal. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (except Feb. 10 at 7 p.m.), plus a 2 p.m. matinee, Wednesday, Feb. 6. For tickets or information, call 514-288-3161, or go online to www.centaurtheatre.com.MORE IN Central Vermont
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