Restorative justice is a bold concept; it requires courage, determination and a willingness to change for its outcome to be as productive as intended.
In David S. Craig's teen-themed play Tough Case, however, one is left wondering where that courage must necessarily lie, and for whom a willingness to change is essential for this innovative system to work.
Tough Case, which completes a two-night run at Manitoba Theatre for Young People tonight, is a thoughtfully staged, multimedia-enhanced exploration of restorative justice, a system that eschews the traditional courtroom-to-cellblock path of the criminal justice system in favour of an interactive model that brings offenders and victims together to create an understanding of actions and consequences that will steer young criminals away from the hurtful behaviour they've been exhibiting.
Tough Case opens with a bang -- and a crash, and a smash, and more mayhem, as silhouetted figures behind a projection screen break into the home of an elderly librarian and, after failing to locate the liquor they'd been seeking, proceed to trash the place in a most terrifying fashion.
Heirlooms are destroyed. Keepsakes are stolen. The world "DEATH" is spray-painted on the wall. Police arrive in time to catch one of the vandals, a teen punk named Dane (David Arial). The damaged home's owner, Grace Ross (Monique Marcker), who, thankfully, was not home when the break-in occurred, is too frightened to return to her home.
Her son, Tom (David Gillies), is beyond furious, and his anger only escalates when he learns that Dane's case has been turned over to restorative justice worker Nessa (Cherissa Richards), whose job -- with the Rosses' reluctant input -- is to force Dane to confront the consequences of his actions, take responsibility for the crime, and propose a solution that will be just for all concerned.
Tom, an old-school thinker, is having none of it -- "Why should HE benefit from anything?" he seethes when Nessa explains the concept. "He got caught red-handed; lock him up!"
If Tom is an obstacle to the restorative justice process, Dane's mother, Marjorie (Andraea Sartison), is simply a hindrance. The survivor of an abusive marriage that she clearly believes should excuse all her parental shortcomings and all Dane's criminal misbehaviour, she has allowed the case to go to restorative justice because, well, it's easier, and it might prevent her son from carrying a criminal record into adult life.
But of course, it isn't easy. Through a series of meetings that bring the two families face to face, Dane is, indeed, forced to think hard about the human consequences of his heartless vandalism. In the end, the system works, and Dane is a changed person.
The problem that some might have with the story, however, is that the only reason this exercise in alterative justice is effective is that poor old Mrs. Ross is the one who experiences the first and most meaningful transformation. She's the brave one; she's the determined one; and she's the one who's first willing to change. If she isn't courageous and open-minded, young offender Dane very likely remains the "friggin' little punk" that Tom Ross perceives him to be (and which he actually is for the first two-thirds of the play). Without Mrs. Ross's transformation, there's no opportunity for lessons to be learned.
Despite its slightly hamstrung message, Tough Case is a well-intentioned and fairly effective commercial for the restorative justice system. Its multi-layered approach to storytelling keeps the narrative interesting, and the cast does an able job of mixing hard truths with occasional injections of humour.
In short, Tough Case is easy to watch, even if it doesn't completely succeed at its task of alternate-justice advocacy.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BradOswald
Manitoba Theatre for Young People
Tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets $16.44 at mtyp.ca or 204-942-8898
3 stars out of 5