Review: ‘Guarded Girls’ at Tarragon Theatre

Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Virgilia Griffith, Columpa Bobb and Michaela Washburn in Guarded Girls photo by Cylla von Tiedemann (1).jpg
  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

‘Guarded Girls’ is a daring and provocative look at the atrocities endured by inmates within the Canadian women’s prison system. The play was created with research, interviews and imagination. It’s shocking, it’s frightening and it’s alarming.

And it’s also a completely fascinating story which had me riveted to my seat as I wanted to hear, to listen, and to watch every move made by these electrifying performances.

The play opens on a bare stage of fifteen equal squares. Britt (Virgilia Griffith) sits alone on an overturned large white plastic pail. I assumed Britt is in solitary confinement as she just stares into space. Enter the prison guard (Columpa C Bobb) who continues to bring these pails and place them all over the stage as the play continues. Finally the guard brings to the cell a new transfer, 19-year-old Sid (Vivien Endicott-Douglas), who strikes up an extraordinarily odd friendship that culminates in a twisting turn of events. Later, we are also introduced to Kit (Michaela Washburn).

I can laugh about it now, but I was fooled just before the play began (as were some other audience members around me) where I saw a slight dripping of water on the stage. I informed an usher of this where I was told it’s part of the show.  Oops! Anyway, I thought this opening sound was a very clever bit of intrigue to hook me in. As the play progressed, the sound of dripping water in the pail became synonymous with the sound of water dripping into a sink. A noisy drip into a sink can be turned off.  For prisoners in horrid conditions, nothing would be done.

Credit must duly be acknowledged to Richard Rose’s direction in keeping the pacing of the play moving briskly along while building interest in the characters. Vivien Endicott-Douglas and Virgilia Griffith are top notch as the play opens and they continue to build to a climactic conclusion. Here are two women who were always credibly present and naturally believable in the moment of the action. The role reversal game between Britt and Sid where each one wants to experience what the other feels is quite odd, but it soon becomes clear of a unique friendship developing between the two.

As the prison guard, Columpa C. Bobb becomes a threatening authority figure who initially says so much about her character as she quietly, yet confidently, enters and places the buckets around the stage in each of her entrances. A complex relationship that borders on the vicious begins to develop between she and Sid. We never see the horrific treatment, but we see the horrible infliction of pain in Ms. Endicott-Douglas’s eyes when she returns to the cell.

In the second part of the story, Kit is introduced and delivers a monologue of incoherent thoughts and rambling emotions of what she has experienced in prison. It’s a tour de force of character development and Michaela Washburn is to be commended for performing in the nude as she showers in the cell. At one point, I wondered why she would be naked during this selection, but it dawned on me as I reflected further that this choice was an appropriate one. Kit’s nakedness exposes to the core a mental illness from which she will possibly never recover.

In the last part of the play, Endicott Douglas, Griffith and Washburn play young teenagers who are somehow related to prison inmates or the guards. Once again, the strength of their performances lies in the fact they have created real individuals who are separate from the ones they had played earlier. I don’t want to spoil the end of the play, but Ms. Bobb’s delivery of her final monologue is astonishing.  I sat silently and listened to every word she said as the monologue ties together the moving and poignant story of courageous and brave women who survived the squalid life of the Canadian prison system.

‘Guarded Girls’ continues to May 5 at Tarragon Theatre in the ExtraSpace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto.  For tickets call the Box Office at (416) 531-1827.  Visit www.tarragontheatre.com for further information and to learn more about the 2019-2020 season.

Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Cast: Columpa C Bobb, Vivien Endicott-Douglas, Virgilia Griffith, Michaela Washburn.

Director: Richard Rose; Set and Costume Designer: Joanna Yu; Lighting Designer: Andre du Toit; Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne;

Photo credit of the cast by Cylla von Tiedemann. From left: Vivien Endicott-Douglas; Virgilia Griffith, Columpa C. Bobb and Michaela Washburn.