Watching Glory Die

Playwright/actor Judith Thompson Credit: Wendy D Phoitography
Playwright/actor Judith Thompson as Gail
Credit: Wendy D Photography


At The Cultch until May 3

Posted April 27, 2014.  

Watching Glory Die is like watching what faith you had in the Canadian Correctional System die, too. What began as the story of a rebellious, fourteen-year girl throwing a couple of crabapples at the back of a New Brunswick mailman in 2003 ended up with the nineteen-year-old dying of self-strangulation in October 2007 in the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario.

Ashley Smith.
Ashley Smith.

Award-winning Canadian playwright/actor Judith Thompson takes to the stage – after a thirty-five year hiatus from performing – in this world premiere directed by Ken Gass for Canadian Rep Theatre (Toronto). The mother of five, Thompson was, as we all were, outraged at the story of Ashley Smith whose one month sentence for the crabapple incident expanded to four years, almost all of it in solitary confinement because of her unruly and disruptive behaviour. Coralee Smith, Ashley’s adoptive mother trusted ‘the system’, knowing that Ashley was difficult and out of control; but eventually, cut off from Ashley who had pen, paper and visitors denied, Coralee knew being ‘a lady’ – the way she had been raised by her own mother – was not working: “To hell with being a lady. I have to howl to get my daughter home.”

Too late.

Ashley is called Glory in Watching Glory Die – a nice bit of wordplay since not only does a young woman die while under constant video surveillance – but as viewers of this play, we watch “glorious and free” Canada fail the most vulnerable: a child.

Astrid Janson’s set is both grim and beautiful: a cell-sized ‘box’ with two sides, a ceiling and a mirror floor. Lighting designer Andre du Toit makes this tiny room seems to float and glow in the darkened theatre: a sort of large blue fish tank with barefoot, prison-garbed Glory moving round and round and round. Projections shimmer on the walls and Debashis Sinha’s sound design, frequently punctuated with the sounds of boots on metal walkways and cell doors slamming, is haunting.

When Thompson is not being Glory, she’s being Gail (Glory’s prison guard) and Rosellen, (Glory’s distraught but trusting mother).

It would have been easy to completely demonize Gail but the Gail we get is not very bright, has been college-trained as a corrections officer, is convinced these prisoners are “criminals”, that they would kill her given a chance and, like Glory’s mother, she follows rules that end up not working. Of course, everything in us screams that Gail could have, should have done something.

Ashley Smith restrained by prison guards
Ashley Smith restrained by prison guards

(In the Ashley Smith case, several guards watched Ashley strangle herself and waited forty-five minutes before entering the ‘TQ’ (therapeutic quiet) room – solitary confinement. All of this is on videotape including a harrowing incident in which four uniformed, gloved, helmeted and face-shielded prison guards force barefoot, prison-gowned Glory into a restraining chair).

When Thompson is Glory’s mother, she’s frightened, worried but hopeful that Glory will be released. That hope turns into helpless anger.

Watching Glory Die is an “if only” play: if only Glory had behaved well in juvenile detention, it would only have been 30 days. She couldn’t. If only Gail had broken rules, rushed in and saved Glory. She didn’t. And if only Glory’s mother had howled, banged on doors, raged, raged, raged. She trusted.

This is not easy viewing. In 2012, a second coroner’s inquest was held and after 12,000 pages of evidence were examined, the jury ruled Ashley Smith’s death a homicide. The jury provided 104 recommendations most of which were intended to suggest ways in which the Canadian Correctional System could better serve female inmates and inmates suffering from mental illness. The jury specifically recommended that indefinite solitary confinement should be banned.

It’s a cautionary tale – particularly to parents. While you might be frustrated with your teenaged children, once they’re in hands of the Canadian Correctional Service be prepared to howl. Forget being nice. Don’t say a Canadian “sorry.” Howl as if your child’s life depended on it.

Judith Thompson Credit: Wendy D Photography
Judith Thompson ( as Glory)
Credit: Wendy D Photography