Innocence Lost

Mike Gill as Steven Truscott Credit: Emily Cooper
Mike Gill as Steven Truscott
Credit: Emily Cooper

At Studio 58 until April 6

Posted March 24, 2014

Can there be any adequate compensation for being falsely convicted of rape and murder, and being incarcerated for a decade from the age of fourteen? That’s the story of Steven Truscott, dramatized in 2009 by Canadian playwright Beverley Cooper and on stage now at Studio 58. If you think the Canadian justice system is perfect, prepare to lose your innocence.

On a hot June 9, 1959 day, near Clinton, Ontario, twelve-year-old Lynne Harper went missing. A lot of kids saw her leave the playground on the handlebars of Steven Truscott’s bike. Her father reported her missing that night and two days later, her body was found in Lawson’s Bush, raped and strangled with her own blouse. Young Steven was the last known person to see her and within two days he had been taken into custody and charged with her murder. Counsel for the defence argued that the case should be heard in juvenile court but the magistrate decided that Steven should stand trial in adult court, “for the good of the child.” For which child: Steven or Lynne?

The trial began on September 16; two weeks later he was found guilty on circumstantial evidence and was sentenced to hang – the youngest Canadian ever. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.

Playwright Cooper tells the story from the perspective of adult Sarah (Kimberly Larson) who was a classmate of Steven’s years ago. (Sarah as an adolescent is played by Lili Beaudoin). Innocence Lost is an excellent vehicle for Studio 58 because much of the play involves Steven (Mike Gill), Lynne (Shauna Griffin) and their schoolmates as adolescents – playing ball, riding their bikes, hula-hooping, pogo-sticking – before ‘aging’ them into college students who, years later, are still affected by the crime. What could be merely a step-by-step recounting of facts is, under the direction of Sarah Rodgers, animated on stage by this large cast of twenty-three. Music is provided by what starts off as a band of five but which swells and diminishes as various actors step in and out: a multi-talented group.

Mike Gill on David Roberts' set Credit: Emily Cooper
Mike Gill on David Roberts’ set
Credit: Emily Cooper

The play unfolds on David Roberts’ effective set that’s appropriate to the age of the characters and to the smalltown nature of the locale: dollhouse-sized buildings indicate the school and other houses in the neighbourhood. Upstage, a curving ramp allows performers on bikes – most importantly Steven with Lynne on the handlebars – to cross the stage. John Webber’s lighting moves us from the Truscott home, stage right, where we see Steven’s mother (Bailey Soleil Creed) to Sarah’s home, stage left, where we see young Sarah, her mother (Jessica Wagstaff) and father (Sean Sonier). Lynne’s distraught parents are portrayed by Anthea Morritt and Markian Tarasiuk.

The key player in the story eventually is Isabel LeBourdais (confidently portrayed by Olivia Hutt), a writer who began digging into the details of the case, began championing Steven and eventually succeeded in getting an acquittal in 2007. Steven Truscott married and raised three children before receiving a 6.5 million dollar ‘compensation package’ in 2008. Born in 1945, he is probably now a grandfather.

Olivia Hutt as Isabel LeBourdais Credit: Emily Cooper
Olivia Hutt as Isabel LeBourdais
Credit: Emily Cooper

What seems now such an obvious miscarriage of justice proceeded without a hitch: faulty analysis of evidence including lesions on Steven’s penis which, a doctor testified, “could only be caused by rape” and a cursory examination of Lynne Harper’s stomach contents that led to an incorrect but incriminating time of death. Years later, when Steven agreed to DNA testing, it was discovered that all the evidence had been destroyed.

Director Sarah Rodgers draws exemplary work from these Studio 58 students who must wonder – along with the rest of us – how such a travesty could occur. Innocence, once lost, is forever gone.