Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott is a history lesson worth learning

Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott
Written by Beverly Cooper
Presented by The London Community Players
Directed by Don Fleckser
Palace Theatre, 710 Dundas Street East
June 14-22, 2013
Tickets: , www.palacetheatre.ca

On June 9, 1959, on an Air Force base near Clinton, Ontario, 14-year-old Steven Truscott gave a 12-year-old schoolmate, Lynne Harper, a ride to the nearby highway on his bicycle. As they disappeared down the road that warm summer evening, neither knew they were riding into history.

That night the Harper family reported their daughter missing and two days later searchers found her in a bush near the highway, brutally raped and strangled. Two days after that, investigators charged Truscott with her murder. On September 16, 1959, after a 15-day trial, the all-male jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death by hanging.

This, however, was not the end of the story. The Truscott family launched two failed appeals, but a year later their son’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Then in 1966, Isabel LeBourdais convincingly argued in her explosive book The Trial of Steven Truscott that the boy was innocent and his conviction, a rush to judgement. The book’s notoriety bumped Truscott’s case up to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled 8-1 against a new trial. In 1969 he quietly left prison and vanished from the public’s consciousness.

Steven Truscott could have ended his days in obscurity, but he stepped into the public maelstrom again in 2001. He was determined to clear his name and his lawyers from the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted filed an application for a retrial. In 2006, the Ontario Court of Appeal heard three weeks of testimony, including fresh evidence. A year later, the panel acquitted Steven Truscott of the murder of Lynne Harper, concluding that the original conviction had been a miscarriage of justice.

Truscott’s ordeal is a larger-than-life tragedy that begged to be recorded for posterity. To date it has inspired a book, novel, song, poetic lament by Pierre Berton, and a TV interview that got the host of This Hour Has Seven Days fired. So it’s not surprising that it has also become a play. Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott premiered at the Blyth Festival Theatre in 2008. Since then it’s appeared throughout Ontario, including Toronto and Ottawa.

Innocence Lost presents Steven Truscott’s story in chronological order, much like a history lesson. However, while this heart-rending tale provides the plot points, Truscott and Lynne Harper themselves seem oddly illusive. The play is less about the pivotal characters and more about the community’s reaction to Harper’s murder, Truscott’s conviction, and the oozing scab of pain, confusion, conflict, disillusionment, and controversy that just wouldn’t heal.

The story unfolds through a complex combination of narrators and short skits. Harper’s parents, Truscott’s parents, witnesses, childhood friends, and sundry townsfolk all step up to move the account forward. While the narrators fill in details, and they and the skits depict multiple viewpoints, the pace and sheer number of them prevents the audience from connecting emotionally with the characters, especially in the first act. The saving grace is the use of a primary narrator, Sarah. Her personal journey – from a belief in her childhood friend’s innocence to a conviction that he is guilty to realizing that justice had failed and what was lost because of that – unites and humanizes the play. The story might have benefited if her viewpoint had been even more dominant.

Director Don Fleckser’s Innocence Lost is a beautifully staged production. The set is starkly minimal, with wood chairs and tables relieved only by a backdrop of historical images. The lighting is suitably mellow and the costumes accurately convey the 50s and 60s. The performers utilize every bit of the stage, keeping the play visibly interesting and the sightlines clear. Two memorable scenes are especially worth mentioning. The first is at the end of Act One, when a single row of townsfolk recite in unison, much like a Greek chorus, as Sarah skips rope, beating out the tempo and struggling not to weep. The second is at the end of Act Two, when Sarah finally knows that Truscott is innocent and how this sets her free as well.

In Innocence Lost there are 11 actors who depict 45 characters and this sums up one of the play’s problems. With so many characters, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. When each actor plays several roles, including multiple major roles, it gets downright confusing. While there were some visual cues to help sort things out, there weren’t enough for the audience to keep everyone straight. Also, it was somewhat disconcerting to see “Lynne Harper” and “Steven Truscott” appear in other incarnations.



 

The play is an ensemble piece and for the most part the performers do a commendable job in their many roles. Most notably, Norah Cuzzocrea as Sarah makes a wonderful narrator and convincingly conveys the subtle complexity of her character’s evolving emotions and maturity. Johnny Bobesich also succeeds in bringing his character Dougie Oates to vibrant life with his quirky depiction. However, while Lori Fellner does create a spirited Isabel LeBourdais, she skates dangerously close to caricature on occasion, as does Christopher Parker with his depictions of Mr. Harper and Dr. Penistan.

Lynne Harper’s murder and Steven Truscott’s ordeal is embedded in the minds of Ontarians, young and old. It is a powerful story that impacted not only Truscott and his family but also the community and country in which he lived. While the play has a few issues, it has a strong second act and is a definite must-see.

This is a history lesson worth remembering by current and future generations – that good people can do bad things for right and wrong reasons. That justice can be delayed but still done. That innocence can be lost but not forever.

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Susan Scott is an arts writer and visual artist. Her drawings are on display at www.londonarts.ca.  

Colour photograph by Ross Davidson


The Arts Project - Studio