Caitlin McFarlane as Jocelyn Gaudet, Carlen Escarraga as Dougie Oates, Shauna Griffin as Lynne Harper & Mike Gill as Steven Truscott in the Studio 58 production of Innocence Lost (A play about Steven Truscott) on stage until April 6. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Caitlin McFarlane as Jocelyn Gaudet, Carlen Escarraga as Dougie Oates, Shauna Griffin as Lynne Harper & Mike Gill as Steven Truscott in the Studio 58 production of Innocence Lost (A play about Steven Truscott) on stage until April 6. Photo by Emily Cooper.

While it may take a full act to find its emotional core, the payoff in the Studio 58 production of Innocence Lost – A Play About Steven Truscott is worth the wait.

[pullquote]From clinical history lesson to emotional discovery, Innocence Lost is a study in contrasts between its two acts.  Fortunately its second half delivers so powerfully that it is worth the wait.  As the closer for its current season, Studio 58 has a winner.[/pullquote]Innocence Lost is based on the true-life 1959 trial and decade’s long search to prove the innocence of Steven Truscott for the rape and murder of his classmate Lynne Harper.  Told from the perspective of Sarah, a resident of the small town of Clinton, Ontario where the murder took place, Beverley Cooper’s memory play takes us from the day of the murder, through Truscott’s death sentence at age 14 and ultimately to his acquittal in 2007.

While much of the first act is a clinical history lesson, told using characters based on real people at the time, the playwright manufactures the narrator Sarah as a device to represent the changing reactions to Truscott over the years.  This composite allows us to witness the ebb and flow of opinion that was generated as she moves from initial disbelief that Truscott could have killed Harper, to a firm belief that he is guilty after the trial, to a gradual questioning of his guilt. Sarah is not only the voice of a community struggling with a heinous crime, but also that of a nation that saw a fundamental tenet of Canadian society in question.  A heavy burden for sure, but Kimberly Larson’s solid performance helps raise it above its convenient theatrical device.

Surprisingly for a play just as much about a man as it is about a community, Steven Truscott takes a back seat to much of the action.  Fortunately Mike Gill as Truscott gives a tremendous performance with relatively little stage time.  Gill is particularly compelling during the trial with his back to mostly to the audience we are still able to feel the pain, confusion and fear of the 14-year old, and as he is sentenced to death it is difficult not to feel his anguish.

While the first act seems at times sterile, it finds its emotional core quickly in act two with the introduction of Isabel LeBourdais, the Canadian journalist and author of The Trial of Steven Truscott.  Played with passion and believability by Olivia Hutt, this is a turning point in Cooper’s story as the tide of opinion begins to change with a new belief that Truscott was as much a victim as Lynne Harper.  Perhaps it is our modern-day feeling of superiority as we look back at a time where a horrific miscarriage of justice could exist, but at the very least the introduction of LeBourdais allows us a better access to the emotions on both sides: that of Truscott’s family looking for exoneration and Harper’s family looking for closure.

Scenographer David Roberts brings a surprising whimsy to the piece with multiple acting levels that keep things interesting and varied, although the moveable set pieces are a distraction at times.  The use of small models to represent the various locales in Clinton is clever not only as a practical solution, but also as a reminder that what we are witnessing is a recollection, a representative and collective memory of what happened that diminishes over time.  John Webber’s lighting design emphasizes the transitions from pre to post murder Clinton and beyond.  Composer Alison Jenkins has designed a varied score to underpin the action on stage and played by members of this large cast as they come and go from scenes.

From clinical history lesson to emotional discovery, Innocence Lost is a study in contrasts between its two acts.  Fortunately its second half delivers so powerfully that it is worth the wait.  As the closer for its current season, Studio 58 has a winner.

By Beverley Cooper. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Studio 58 production. On stage at Langara College’s Studio 58 through April 6, 2014.  Visit http://studio58.ca for tickets and information.