Daina Leitold (L) and Melanie Dean in "Jail Baby" (Janet Shum)
Jail Baby, a new play by Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore, is an oddity in contemporary Canadian theatre - in that it's unabashedly political.
That's brave, and it certainly works in hammering home a political message. But how well it works as a piece of theatre will likely depend on how much you agree with that message.
Jail Baby was born with ambitious and noble intentions. Working in partnership with the Elizabeth Fry society, McIntyre and Moore based their play on workshops with women in correctional institutions.
The play, seeing its premiere through McIntyre's Sarasvati Productions, relates what they learned in the process through the story of Jasmine (played in her younger years by Ashley Chartrand, and as an adult in an effectively understated performance by Melanie Dean).
When we're introduced to the adult Jasmine, she's pulling a prison uniform over a very pregnant belly, as she tells us "I'm just fulfilling my destiny."
Jasmine, we discover, is herself a "jail baby" - born in prison to her profoundly disadvantaged, substance-addicted mother Char (Tracey Nepinak), who spends more time in prison than out. As a result, Jasmine's childhood is spent in a series of foster homes - in one of the play's most powerful, chilling moments, she coldly lists the surnames of the dozens of foster families she's been part of.
McIntyre and Moore cut the deadly seriousness of the subject matter by depicting Char and Jasmine's experiences in the justice system as surreal, over-the-top fantasy sequences. A perpetually cheery ringmaster character (Hot Thespian Action's Shannon Guile, putting her comic chops to great use) takes us behind bars in a recurring segment called "Lifestyles of the Poor and Marginalized," and court literally becomes a circus.
Not that Jail Baby ever becomes outright comedy - what humour there is here is pitch black, because it always has the ring of a disturbing truth under it. ("Born in prison. Born a prisoner," the adult Jasmine says. "It sounds like a bad country song.")
Its mix of heavy drama and absurdity is handled skillfully by the talented seven person cast, rounded out by local veterans Daina Leitold, Megan McArton, and Cory Wojcik, all of whom do excellent work in a variety of roles.
Director Ann Hodges' 75-minute production sometimes overplays the drama (a key slow motion scene is unfortunately awkward), but plays the fantasy sequences boldly. And they work to skewer the madness of a justice system that seems to embody the oft-quoted definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results."
But there's the rub. There's some wonderful writing in a script that succeeds in putting a human face on the "monsters" we lock away in prisons. But Jail Baby seems likely to only fully connect with audience members who come in accepting not just that the justice system is broken, but that the "tough on crime" approach promoted by social conservatives - and the political Conservatives currently in power - is an abject failure to fix that system.
There's a late in the play attempt to strike some balance with a character whose father has been a victim of violent crime. But the character feels like a straw woman set up to be knocked down by the arguments Jail Baby is truly committed to making, sometimes heavy-handedly. And so the play ultimately has the feel of a sermon for an already-converted choir.
But if you're among the converted, you'll find lots to like in Jail Baby, which has a timely and important message about criminality and punishment in Canada - and why maybe "committing sociology" shouldn't be seen as some sort of crime.
Jail Baby runs at the University of Winnipeg's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film (400 Colony St.) until May 26.