Monday, April 9

Dionysus in Stony Mountain

I must admit my limited experience and knowledge of prison standards has been tainted by Hollywood’s glamour – feature films in general, but The Shawshank Redemption in particular.

Photo courtesy of

That being said, I do realize the dramatization on camera and the real life practices of criminal institutions are like night and day.  Although I’ll probably never get to witness it firsthand, I’d be curious to explore the relationships between inmates and prison staff.

Dionysus in Stony Mountain is a play that examines one version of this relationship.  The play was written by Steven Ratzlaff, directed by Bill Kerr and presented by Theatre Projects Manitoba.  It played from March 29 to April 8 at the Rachel Browne Theatre in Winnipeg’s Exchange District.

As Ratzlaff’s first full-length play, Dionysus in Stony Mountain began as a one-act production in Winnipeg’s 2009 Fringe Festival.  The second act now completes the two-hour play, focusing on the characters James (a Stony Mountain inmate, played by Ross McMillan), Heidi (a psychiatrist, played by Sarah Constible) and Eric (Heidi’s uncle, also played by Ross McMillan).

Dionysus in Stony Mountain is presented simply as a ping-pong conversation between James and Heidi in the first act, and Heidi and Eric in the second.  The simplicity of its set up allows the intelligent and sometimes witty dialogue to shine through.  And trust me, there is plenty of it.

Photo by Leif Norman

The play begins with James paying a regular visits to his prison psychiatrist.  His parole hearing is quickly approaching, and Heidi expresses she’s concerned he has become unstable after refusing to resume his lithium treatments.  James explains he’s gone off his meds in favour of absorbing Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, a 19th-century German philosopher.

Friedrich Nietzsche, courtesy of

Heidi begins to realize that James is probably on to something.  A psychiatrist who feels imprisoned by her work taking advice from someone who’s imprisoned by walls, but completely free in the mind?  The irony behind this concept pushes Heidi to question where her place is in the world, which is further explored in the second act.

Photo by Leif Norman

The over-arching themes on religion, politics and society are fleshed out through carefully written dialogue.  McMillan delivers a riveting performance, although those unfamiliar with Nietzsche may lose some context of the story.  Thankfully, Ratzlaff has made the dialogue easy enough to digest without too much philosophical background.  McMillan carries many interesting points on our justice system, political system and the foundation of religion.  The most impressive feat, however, was his ability to perfectly execute all of his dialogue.

I found the most interesting theme of this play to be the psychiatrist/patient relationship.  Normally, this type of relationship would focus on a one-way stream of dialogue.  As opposed to a question and answer period, their exchanges became more of a discussion, which allowed James to tear down Heidi’s walls of professionalism and get into the mind of the individual behind the nametag.  The turning of the tables is unordinary, but not completely out of left field.  It opens up the discussion of a criminal’s mindset, of sound mind or otherwise.

Artist drawing of Vince Li, courtesy of

James’ mental condition makes me curious about the preconceived notions our society has about prisoners. There’s often the question of mental health, and whether or not criminals were of sound minds when committing the act.  Take the Vinci Li case, where on March 3, 2009, Li pleaded not criminally responsible for his crime of stabbing, decapitating and cannibalizing Tim McLean. Diagnosed with schizophrenia by a testifying psychiatrist, Li claimed it was God’s voice who told him that McLean was a force of evil and had to be executed.  Certainly, this is not the first of its kind.

Watching this play has heightened my sensitivity to the clockwork of society.  I believe Ratzlaff is an excellent playwright, and has done amazing work in his premiere piece.  Dionysus in Stony Mountain is a thoughtful product and makes the audience critically think about the confusion behind what makes humans tick.

More information on the play can be viewed here.

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