Liz Richardson explores the essence of life, connection and the human soul in a fascinating, true story about an American prisoner on death row and his affect on three individuals: a painter, a professor and another prisoner.
Unconfined, a 70-minute drama produced by Kazan Co-op at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia lecture theatre through April 10, is chewy, engaging and thought-provoking theatre.
Unconfined is a metaphysical journey taken by three marvellously-distinct characters in awe of a spiritual, artistic prisoner who means different things to each of them and who changes their lives. While prison is a grim place, the story itself is positive.
According to Richardson: “This play asks ‘Are we at our core fundamentally awake and kind and, therefore, even if we commit a terrible act, can we still uncover that basically good, wise person? And if so, how does this happen? And most importantly, how does it affect those close to us?’
Richardson, as directed by Ed Thomason, plays all three characters with wonderful distinction, simple changes and great voice work. The professor is defined by her large glasses and Southern U.S. accent but that’s not her only difference from the painter.
She has a forceful personality, a strong set to her face and even her body appears compact as opposed to the tall, reedy, fanciful British painter, who exchanges art and poetry with the prisoner. Benny, the fellow prisoner, is a rough and tumble character who is an excellent sewer and drawn to his prison-mate’s calm and life philosophy.
‘”Almost everything in the play is true,” says Richardson.
The drama’s roots are in a letter sent eight years ago by the prisoner to Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton.
When the director’s secretary opened his letter eight years ago “she noticed his amazing handwriting and the sentiments in the letter and was kind of stunned because she gets hundreds of letters.”
The secretary and her husband became penpals of the prisoner, as did an academic woman in the Buddhist community of Atlanta (the model for the professor). This woman asked Richardson’s husband, a senior Buddhist teacher, to fly to Atlanta to give the prisoner Buddhist vows.
After the prisoner was executed by lethal injection, his lawyers sent a package of his drawings, poetry and letters to those close to him including Richardson’s husband. “When he very casually handed me this binder I opened it up and I was amazed.
“I thought this is an amazing story and I very gently started to talk to people and all of them said to me, ‘Please tell this story.’ I’m no spring chicken; if there had been any obstacles I wouldn’t have gone ahead.”
She did extensive interviews with the two key women in the play, flying to England for four days, and with prisoners whom she amalgamated into Benny. Then she and Thomason (former artistic director of Festival Antigonish) as dramaturge chose crucial dramatic moments and built the characters and their journeys – not without humour.
Since the story is about transformation, she and Thomason decided the audience should witness one actor’s transformation into different characters, which works really well. You can feel and see Richardson changing from one character to another with very few visual cues.
The magic of Unconfined is the simplicity of the staging. The set is a bench, the one prop is a piece of paper. However, the words create all the spaces vividly within the imagination, a process assisted by a fine original soundscape by Josh Cruddas (composer) and a delicate and very effective lighting design by Vicky Williams. Co-producer Janet MacLellan did the costuming – those glasses are perfect! – and Jenn Hewitt is the stage manager.
COVID-19 and difficulty securing grant money – finally Arts Nova Scotia came through – were the big challenges in getting Unconfined to the stage. Kazan Co-op, who presented Richardson’s one-woman show Going On at the Waiting Room in 2016, stepped in.
Kazan’s artistic director Kathryn MacLellan is a fan of Richardson’s work. “It’s also very exciting to be performing at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Partnering with them is a great fit for us. It’s a beautiful, intimate 80-seat space. And although restrictions are lifting, we are mindful of social distancing and maintain space between seats for patrons who feel more comfortable that way.”
Unconfined runs through Saturday, 7:30 p.m., with a matinee Sunday, 2 p.m. For tickets at $37.08 including fees go to: http://www.tickethalifax.com (search Kazan or Unconfined). The entrance to the gallery’s Windsor Foundation Theatre is 1728 Bedford Row.
MacLellan mused in a private conversation at show’s end about what the Art Gallery would be used for after the new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is built. Could it be the long-for arts centre that people have speculated for the old library, for Bloomfield School and for the Metro Centre?