— Production photos by Emily Cooper
Innocence Lost is a documentary drama about the 1959 rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl and its aftermath: the grief, anger, and confusion of a small Ontario community, and the conviction, imprisonment, and ultimately—a half-century later—exoneration of the boy thought to have done it. The murder of Lynne Harper and the wrongful conviction of her 14-year-old schoolmate Steven Truscott sent shock waves throughout Canada, became the subject of a couple of books, and the source of Beverley Cooper’s play.
Sarah Rodgers’ production utilizes two dozen Studio 58 student actors in an effective ensemble approach that tells the story clearly and vividly.
Written originally for the Blyth Festival, a small-town theatre close to the scene of the crime, Cooper’s script sanitizes the events. This is no Mies Julie or The Crucible. We see everything through the eyes of a fictional narrator named Sarah, a school chum of both Lynne and Steven, along with her parents and others in the community. There’s a 1950s feel to their presentation—no one wants to know any of the nasty details; they just want the horror to go away. The easiest way for that to happen is to find a scapegoat. For various reasons young Steven fits the bill.
Steven protests his innocence, but without much vigour, and we never really get inside him. Tried as an adult, the 14-year-old was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging but had his sentence commuted by Prime Minister Diefenbaker to life imprisonment. The play completely skips over the ten years he spent in prison before being paroled. We learn even less about the victim, Lynne. Her grieving parents also get very little stage time.
It’s Sarah who guides us through the play with her mother and others acting like a chorus, warning of the bad kids from the nearby air force base and pre-convicting Steven on even less of the circumstantial and spurious evidence than the jury uses to convict him at the trial.
A journalist champions Steven’s cause, challenging the evidence, witnesses, and tactics of police and prosecutors. Eventually, we learn, Steven Truscott’s case was re-opened, and in 2007 he was finally exonerated and awarded $6.5 million in damages. No one else was ever charged or convicted for the murder.
Rodgers creates some memorable stage pictures, especially at the beginning where we see kids jumping rope, tumbling, riding bikes—embodying the innocence that would be lost to them and to the entire community. Both Kimberly Larson and Lili Beaudoin are very good as the older and younger Sarah. Mike Gill does a nice job of creating a Steven so blank that he’s hard to read. There’s always a suspicion that he may actually have done it. Jessica Ross also does good work as the daughter of one of the jurors. Standing out among the adult characters are Bailey Soleil Creed as Steven’s mother, Vincent Leblanc-Beaudoin’s judge, and Olivia Hutt as the crusading journalist Isabel LeBourdais.
Alison Jenkins has composed some original country music that adds to the flavor of the time and place and is impressively performed by six of the students. No one sings, and there’s nothing much in this unhappy tale to sing about. But it’s important for Canadians to know about our fallible systems and selves, and for Canadian artists to tell stories like this. Good for Studio 58 for doing this play.