- Guarded Girls
- Written by: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman
- Genre: Drama
- Director: Richard Rose
- Actors: Columpa C. Bobb, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Virgilia Griffith, Michaela Washburn
- Company: Tarragon Theatre
- Venue: Tarragon Extraspace
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to May 5, 2019
Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman excels at writing about troubled young women. Her Governor-General’s Award-nominated play, Scratch, concerned a teenager grappling with grief and a tormenting case of head lice. In Twisted – her Oliver Twist update co-written with Joseph Jomo Pierre – she gave us a 23-year-old prostitute dealing in drugs and bleak cynicism.
Now, with Guarded Girls, her artful and disturbing new prison drama premiering in the Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace, the Toronto playwright offers chilling glimpses into the lives of several girls and women, all of them damaged in various ways by a dysfunctional penal system.
Some of that damage is due to the brutal use of solitary confinement, making this a particularly timely play – especially in light of the recent Ontario Court of Appeal ruling severely limiting its use in Canadian prisons. But Corbeil-Coleman paints a broader picture, in which that controversial form of punishment is just part of a greater dehumanization that leaves prisoners – and guards – caught in a vicious circle which breeds rather than eradicates criminal behaviour.
The 90-minute play cunningly unfolds in three seemingly disparate sections. The first and longest one involves a couple of inmates, the self-styled bad girl Sid (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) and the self-declared innocent Brit (Virgilia Griffith), who have been thrown together in the same cell. The pair kill time playing Sid’s favourite game, which involves the two of them mimicking one another and, taking it to the next level, doing imitations of their guard imitating them.
The game turns out to be wary Sid’s oblique way of revealing herself and others. She uses it to tease out Brit’s story of how she was falsely accused in a knifing incident. Later, Sid impersonates the guard to recount her own teenage descent into drugs and acts of aggression, the last of these so violent that it landed her behind bars.
Her scrappy nature also leads to repeated run-ins with that guard (Columpa C. Bobb), resulting in repeated doses of what is known in prison parlance as “administrative segregation” or “seg.” After each period in isolation, Sid returns to Brit a little more broken, physically as well as psychologically – Endicott-Douglas does a vivid job of making Sid’s mental state visible in her slumped shoulders and pathetic attempts at cheerfulness. The overall effect is like a time-lapse depiction of the torture of solitary confinement. And, as we may have guessed from that long shred of cloth Sid keeps compulsively twisting around her hand, it doesn’t end well.
In the second part, we meet another, older prisoner, the wily, garrulous Kit (Michaela Washburn). Adept at fooling guards and crafting shivs, she shares with us her long history of incarceration, which began with two years for selling drugs and has evolved into an ever-lengthening sentence thanks to the crimes that prison life engenders.
In the poignant final section, a trio of young girls deliver monologues about their neglected lives. As their identities slowly come into focus, along with their connections to the previous narratives, Corbeil-Coleman reveals the way prison destroys daughters as well as mothers.
While she ends up hammering home her message a little too hard, her play’s intriguing structure and compelling characters keep us involved. She’s also blessed with a strong cast. As a baby-faced Sid, Endicott-Douglas goes from quirkily noble to achingly sad. Griffith provides a perky contrast as Brit. Both actors are also delightfully convincing in their later roles as preteens.
Washburn is wonderfully brassy as Kit, who first appears nude and lathering up with wild abandon in the shower. It’s Bobb as the guard, though, who springs the biggest surprise. Acting for most of the play as a minor figure of pitiless, sarcastic authority, in the last scene she finally, passionately lets loose with a blistering indictment of prison life from the other side of the bars.
Richard Rose’s direction is taut and, in one scene – a hostage-taking – almost unbearably intense. Joanna Yu’s stark set and André du Toit’s razor-sharp lighting suggest both the cruel brightness and narrow confines of a segregation cell. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design takes the steady drip from a leaking roof into a bucket and turns it into an ominous marking of time.
Guarded Girls invites inevitable comparisons with Orange is the New Black – not least because, like the heroine of that series, Brit comes from a privileged background and has a lesbian lover. The playwright seems to have anticipated it. At one point, Brit asks Sid of prison, “Did you think it would be like TV?” What Corbeil-Coleman shows us, though, is a far cry from a colourful soap opera. The ruined lives of these girls and their guard have the prosaic, painful ring of truth.
Guarded Girls continues to May 5. (tarragontheatre.com)