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Inmates on the outside

by Lenise Willis

 lenise@yesweekly.com

They say that you make your best friends in college. But what do they say about making friends in prison?

Delving into the delicate psyche of women inmates, playwright Chloe Moss writes about the dynamic inner-prison relationships and the difficulties of new post-release freedom in her play This Wide Night.

The play depicts a surprisingly affectionate portrayal of two women who are trying to restart their lives after being released from prison.

“It is, quite simply, a beautifully written story about a segment of the population we don’t often give attention to,” said Amy da Luz, producer of Paper Lantern Theatre’s upcoming production. “The characters resonated with me long after I had put the play down, and that is always a good sign. They made me laugh and they made me cry.”

Paper Lantern Theatre Company, with its mission of bringing diverse stories to a diverse audience, will perform Moss’ intriguing tale in Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret this weekend through May 26.

Denise Gabriel, director for Paper Lantern’s production, actually worked with imprisoned women in the ’80s, giving her special insight into the production.

“I actually worked with another university teaching a course in both a men’s prison and a women’s prison, utilizing acting in their rehabilitation,” Gabriel says. “So I feel kind of experienced to it.”

“I find it interesting, sharing time and space with another person like you do in prison,” Gabriel adds as she contemplates on the fictional relationship between Lorraine and Marie, former cellmates in This Wide Night.

The play begins with Lorraine arriving at Marie’s doorstep. She hasn’t seen Marie, who was previously released, for years, and yet it is the first place she visits — with her suitcase still in hand.

“What I like best about Chloe Moss’ writing is that it sparks,” says Beth Ritson, actress and Paper Lantern co-founder. “This play is about healing, or at least acclimating. It’s a really intense play… but it has its comical moments, too.”

Ritson says that performing Lorraine and trying to figure out “where her head must be” after completing 12 years in prison, has been one of her greatest challenges as an actress.

“I just really feel for Lorraine. She has a big heart and she’s very lost. She has no place to go, no one on the outside to see, except for her old cellmate from prison.”

To “get her head in the game” Ritson had to do quite a bit of research on British women’s prisons. Whereas Moss, who grew up in Liverpool, gathered her inspiration and materials for the play by spending a writer’s residency in a British prison in 2006, Ritson spent a residency on Google, reading blogs, reviews and more on prisons and life on the inside.

“It’s insane how much information you can get from the internet,” Ritson said. “It’s really been my best friend in helping me to get a feel for what life was like in [Her Majesty Prison Cookham Wood — the real British prison where the story takes place].”

One of the most interesting things that Ritson learned was that unlike American prisons where inmates are prohibited from having shoelaces, razor blades and other potentially hazardous materials, the HM prisons in Britain had no such rule.

“The prison [talked about in the play] actually had a store where inmates could buy clothes and razor blades and things,” Ritson explains.

Of course, there are other things that Ritson could only infer, such as what the heck is in Lorraine’s bag. “She has a suitcase and it says the suitcase is heavy,” Ritson said. “And I’m thinking, what could she possibly have collected?” Although we know that Lorraine was doing time for murder, the play also does not mention what Marie was in for.

“I think Chloe is vague on purpose because these women don’t define themselves by their crimes,” Ritson says. “Society does, but they don’t at this point.”

This Wide Night was originally staged in London in 2008 and was commissioned by the Clean Break Theater Company, a group that describes itself as “Working with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system.” Since then it has been performed in women’s prisons in the United Kingdom.

Gabriel says that they hope to continue that tradition and perform the play in several local women’s prisons.

WANNA go?

Paper Lantern Theatre Company’s production of This Wide Night runs in Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret, 232 S. Elm St., on select days Friday through May 26. Tickets are $20 general admission; $18 seniors and students. For tickets or more information visit paperlanterntheatre.com or call the Triad Stage box office at 336.272.0160.

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