Theatre Kingston’s "Hothouse" reaches beyond prison walls

Acclaimed Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s adaptation of The Convict Lover takes the stage in Kingston

Actress Kaleigh Gorka plays Cassie, who discovers her great-great-aunt Phyllis’ love letters from her youth.
Actress Kaleigh Gorka plays Cassie, who discovers her great-great-aunt Phyllis’ love letters from her youth.
Supplied by Theatre Kingston

While Hothouse offers exciting twists and turns, the melodrama leaves little room for critical engagement with prison systems in Kingston or elsewhere.

Theatre Kingston's latest work, Hothouse — adapted by Judith Thompson from Merilyn Simonds' novel The Convict Lover — explores the notion of freedom through a complicated drama that unfolds at Kingston Penitentiary.

Hothouse tells two stories in parallel. The first focuses on a teenager named Phyllis, played by Kaleigh Gorka, who strikes up an unlikely relationship in the 1910s through a series of letters exchanged with a the Kingston Pen prisoner she knows only as Daddy Long Legs, played by Ali Momen.

In the play’s second narrative, Gorka also plays Cassie, a young woman asked by her great-great-aunt Phyllis (now played by Carolyn Hetherington) to bring Daddy Long Legs’ letters to the prison. There she meets Momen’s second character: Ty, a bank robber with an angel’s face and a sympathetic past.

As Cassie gets closer to Ty, probing his past for her sociology thesis, and Ty urges Cassie to help him plan a breakout, their relationship begins to mirror the romance of Daddy Long Legs’ and Phyllis, who is now a centenarian. Phyllis spends her days in a nursing home, waiting for a visit from the convict fiancée who never contacted her after he was released.

Thompson's trademark style, which explores the extremes of human passion with rich, poetic dialogue, is on full display here. The result is a play that's lively and romantic, but hesitant to dig into the details of the prison, its inmates or its operations. The characters are compelling and the plot moves quickly, but the show doesn't have anything bold to say about the prison system, and her fanciful story borders at times on the absurd.

The real-life story behind Hothouse is just as intriguing as fiction. In 1987, Simonds found a series of letters written from a convict to a young girl who lived near a prison quarry, which formed the basis for her 1996 book The Convict Lover.

In February 2014, Theatre Kingston commissioned Thompson to create a play based on Simonds’ novel. Thompson chose to introduce another true story into the mix: that of Tyrone William “Ty” Conn, the first successful Kingston Pen escapee in 40 years.

The story's themes stretch beyond the prison walls.

“If you live in a small community which is surrounded by prisons [...] do you start to adopt and come up with your own psychological cells?” director Kathryn MacKay said in an interview with The Journal.

The question carries throughout the plot and the show’s quietly powerful design. The sunlight in Phyllis's nursing home cruelly mimics prison bars and the translucent hanging screens trap characters in several ways: in prisons, but also in their homes, orphanages and their own inescapable pasts.

The twists and turns will keep audiences engaged, as will a standout performance by Momen, who expertly balances sincere charm with cunning manipulation. He bristles with energy both playful and dangerous, deftly leaping about the stage as he confronts police officers and the neglectful foster parents who haunt him.

Hetherington too commands attention in a nuanced performance steeped in regret, hope and shame. She drifts about the stage in her wheelchair, tortured by the thought that she’s wasted her life by falling in love with a ghost.

Gorka sometimes reads a little too young and immature to be a Masters student, but then again, the play tells the story of two young women hustled by older, deceitful men. Once Cassie's loyalty to Ty is tested, the actress finds an intensity that better matches her age.

The scenes set in 1919 are harder to warm up to. They’re hamstrung by a foregone conclusion and several musical numbers feel out of place. The show gestures broadly at injustices in the prison system — but those looking for incisive social commentary will instead find a melodrama concerned more with poetic notions of freedom than the realities of the inmate experience.

Despite feeling uneven and a little underweight, the show carries enough in its slick design and well-crafted performances to propel it through a 90-minute runtime. Fans of over-the-top dramas like Orange is the New Black will enjoy the lurid action and romance, but those looking for something more grounded may find an hour and a half of Hothouse more like a prison sentence.

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