How the justice system failed him, the murder victim, both families and an entire town

The year was 1959. He was 14 years old. He was sentenced to be hanged for a murder he did not commit.
Steven Truscott was in the news.

The headlines tore into the minds of Canadians, especially those on an airbase in Clinton, Ontario, the tight knit community in which the murder occurred. Truscott was finally released from prison in 1969 and in 2007 he was acquitted of the crime.

Innocence Lost, a play by Beverley Cooper, encapsulates the story of Truscott from his school days with classmate, 12 year old Lynne Harper, to her murder, his trial and retrial. But it centres mostly on the intrigue, gossip and injustice that surrounded the entire affair in that small community, with such precision, such depth, that for much of the play you feel totally transported back in time. And you can only sit, watch, and shake your head at the injustice.

Imagine a set (James Lavoie) almost as minimal as that of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  A small model of the town of Clinton and the airbase disappears shortly after the opening curtain. It is there to give the audience a clear view of the route taken by Truscott with Harper on the crossbar of his bike that fatal day. There are some chairs on a raised area downstage left, a table with chairs and a large backdrop on which video of rustling leaves on tree branches, or a young boy’s face appears. His face soon fades into the distance, his eyes the last to disappear, until only the leaves are left. (The video, by George Allister and Patrick Andrew Boivin, incorporates beautifully into the set.) The sound is that of night crickets. So vivid a picture is painted by sight and sound, you can almost smell the peonies the actor talks about.

The actor is Jenny Young (Sarah), as she leans against a tree, talking about that evening in 1959 when she heard one of her classmates went missing. Sarah drives the play. She is a narrator. Created by the author, Sarah is a fictional character who starts off with a crush on Truscott, but by the time she has been exposed to the circumstantial evidence (and there wasn’t much of that), innuendo and hateful talk of the community, she slowly drifts in another direction.  

Sarah serves to represent the many children in the case who had to testify and were left with devastating scars.

Innocence Lost is one of the most powerful productions I have seen. There are ten actors playing multiple roles. Surely any actor’s dream. And they do it so very artfully here – in some cases, going from a child to an adult. Notably, Julie Tamiko Manning (Truscott’s mother and Butch George – a rather confused schoolmate of Truscott’s) moves from one to the other seamlessly. It took me awhile before I recognized they were one and the same actor. Allan Morgan (Mr. Harper, Harold Graham, Judge, Dr. Penistan, Hobbs, E.B. Menzies, Local Man, Stoner) plays the erroneous judge with great authority and narrow-minded certitude – leaving us all stunned at the words, “…sentenced to death by hanging….”

Fiona Reid (Isabel LeBourdais, Mrs. Harper, Woman from Base, A Mother, Maggie, Nurse) shines as LeBourdais, the Chatelaine journalist who spearheaded a drive to free Truscott, and have him acquitted with her novel, The Trial of Steven Truscott.  She was a woman before her time who stood up to the military, politicians, the justice system and those in the community of Clinton who would see Truscott remain incarcerated. Reid attacks the role with strength and conviction.

Innocence Lost was first mounted in 2008 at The Blyth Summer Festival.  Cooper was commissioned to write the play by Eric Coates, then Artistic Director of the Festival. The play sold out every night and was brought back the following summer, again to full houses. The fact that the murder was committed about 20 kilometers away from the theatre may also have had something to do with that. Indeed, the community remains completely divided over the outcome of the affair.

Truscott was a member of the audience one night and sat directly in front of Cooper, who admits being very nervous with him sitting in front of her that night! (“Why they sat him there, right in front of me, I don’t know….”) When she met him backstage after the show, she found him “quiet, gentle and very shy”.

These are the qualities that Trevor Barrette, who plays Truscott, astutely brings to the forefront.  A good boy, a boy whom at the start of the play everyone liked and had little negative to say about. That soon changed.

Joan Wiecha (Lynne Harper) is sweet, poignant, and yet produces a touch of brashness when needed for the role. Her participation in the funeral scene, along with the others, was particularly touching.

Roy Surette’s direction is exquisite, sensitive and keeps the subject matter moving with what appears to be a simplicity that masks what is actually a challenging form of theatrical narrative. Not easy to do. Surette’s production is marvellous.

Once again, Centaur brings us a wonderful ensemble group and provocative piece.

Run…run fast…Get your tickets for Innocence Lost now!

Innocence Lost, a co-production with the National Arts Centre, is at The Centaur Theatre until February 24. For Tickets: 514-288-3161