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The Valley: Play's take on mental illness is subtle - the production less so

Zachary Dugan in The Valley.

Trudie Lee Photography

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
The Valley
Written by
Joan MacLeod
Directed by
Linda Moore
Actors
Esther Purves-Smith, Kyle Jespersen, Zachary Dugan, Erin MacKinnon
Company
Alberta Theatre Projects
City
Calgary
Runs Until
Sunday, April 07, 2013

It's an altogether too familiar story.

On a SkyTrain platform in Vancouver, a teenage boy behaving erratically is confronted by a police officer responding to an alarm. During the subsequent arrest, the teenager's jaw is broken. Did the cop use excessive force on a young man suffering from a mental illness? Or was he simply doing his job – which isn't really about fighting crime, but about corralling people on drugs or off their meds?

"It's all crazy people fighting crazy people," says Dan, the officer involved in the dispute, ruefully describing his job to the audience. "I might as well be a nurse."

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With her new play The Valley, playwright Joan MacLeod peers behind the headlines in a subtle work that avoids all the romantic traps that typically ensnare those who write about mental illness. Focusing on two families, she takes a close, clear-eyed look at our society – one where individual rights and freedoms are constantly clashing with the desire to protect, at home and on the streets.

As the play begins, Sharon (Esther Purves-Smith) is nervous about sending her bright son Connor (Zachary Dugan) off to the University of Calgary. Indeed, even as he's readying to go out the door, she suggests that it's not too late to switch to the University of British Columbia. Or perhaps to the University of Toronto – where she could follow and finally finish her master's.

At first Sharon seems like your average overprotective helicopter parent, but when an angry and depressed Connor arrives home for Thanksgiving announcing that he's dropping out, it seems more like she had a premonition. Sharon is at a loss trying to figure out how much she should try to help her son and how much she should heed his demands to leave him alone. There's a frighteningly fine line between a young man developing schizophrenia and a typical teenager.

Meanwhile, Dan (the charismatic Kyle Jespersen) is experiencing the early joys of parenthood – and has surprised himself by becoming the type of father who will rattle on about the development of his baby son's arches. "I thought that a baby would be boring because other babies are boring," he tells a colleague in the squad room.

His wife Janie (Erin MacKinnon), whom he first met while patrolling the Downtown Eastside, is not as overjoyed about their infant as he is, however. Dan oscillates between concern about her postpartum depression, which he worries will lead her back to drugs, and irritation at the situation – his home is supposed to be an oasis from the perils he faces at work.

In the past, MacLeod – the most recent and, as it turns out, final winner of the Siminovitch Prize for playwriting – has turned Canadian tragedies such as the murder of Reena Virk and the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig into dramas. The Valley initially began, in a similar way, as an investigation of the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after being tasered by RCMP officers at the Vancouver Airport.

Instead, MacLeod decided to look at a more common situation in a city where 50 per cent of calls that police respond to downtown are related to mental illness.

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Full points to MacLeod for approaching the subject with subtlety, indeed depicting it as simply a fact of daily life. By eschewing a big, singular crisis for a small, sadly banal one, however, The Valley has to hold us fully with its characters rather than the situation. Ultimately, director Linda Moore's production doesn't dig deep enough to do that.

Moore plays it light and bright like a gentle comedy for much of the first act, making it difficult to navigate the play's shift into darker territory. Her attempts to create mood through theatrical movement – such as having the cast walk around in a circle on the stage – come off as clunky. Scott Reid's design reinforces the blandness of it all.

The problem in superficiality of tone is exemplified by Dugan's skin-deep performance as Connor; he plays both his bright and troubled versions of the characters from the outside in, all voice and posturing.

The other cast members are more successful. Still, I'll be interested to see what Richard Rose, a more exacting director, makes of MacLeod's script next season at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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