Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: (Calgary) The Valley

Erin MacKinnon, Kyle Jespersen (photo by Trudie Lee Photography)
Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
by Josef Vermeulen

The most striking thing about The Valley is not the intersection of policing and mental illness, nor the issues of suicide and substance abuse, although all of those ideas are touched on. No, the most striking thing is how a play that is ostensibly about such fertile ideas can say absolutely nothing about any of them. 

The overall story of The Valley revolves around a singular event. Teenaged Connor experiences a violent psychotic break on the SkyTrain in Vancouver, and is arrested, in the process breaking his jaw. Arresting Officer, Dan, is then caught up in Connor’s mother Sharon’s attempts to deal with the perceived excessive use of force in the arrest of her son, and his wife Janie’s post partum depression and suicide attempts.

The main problem with the play is that it tries to cover too many large themes. The result of combining all of these issues - all of which could be stand-alone plays - is that each idea gets perfunctory coverage in the play and then is forgotten. Major themes such as suicide and depression are simply mentioned once then glossed over as we move on to the next thing.

Aside from the issues in the script of trying to say too much, the production also falls down because of the writing of the characters.

As the hit musical Next to Normal shows, mental illness and its impact on a family is more than enough for one play. The Valley covers the same grounds as Next to Normal, even having a similar scene about the medications used to treat the illness, but fails to say anything about it other than how horrible it is, and how much you should be happy you don’t have it.

Aside from the issues in the script of trying to say too much, the production also falls down because of the writing of the characters. All of them are immensely unlikeable and un-relatable. To make matters worse, especially in the case of Dan the police officer and new father, they are hypocrites.  Dan saves Janie from drug use and suicidal depression, and is sympathetic to her struggle, and yet refuses to listen to her when she says she needs help and becomes angry with her as she increasingly starts to slip back into depression.

Kyle Jespersen as Dan seemed remarkably uncommitted to the character. His dialogue was as though he was reading it from a teleprompter, and he seemed unsure of how to play the one voice of reason in the play.  He was most believable in the scene where he tries to talk down a raging Connor and ultimately arrests him.

Likewise Esther Purves-Smith’s Sharon is remarkably one-dimensional. This is partly due to the script, which has her in a very antagonistic relationship with everyone else on stage. Her performance falls flat though when Connor tells her he wants to kill himself and tells her about how he almost jumped off of a roof at University; the shock and horror for her son was just not there to be seen.

Erin MacKinnon (Janie) and Zachary Dugan (Connor) were the two most obviously committed cast members. Both believably played their mental illness, perhaps because their characters' struggles gave them more to play with within the script.  While both are still unlikable due to their lashing out at those who are presumably trying to help them, their characters felt the most real. The most touching scene in the play was where Janie and Connor discuss their own mental illnesses and Janie tells the story of how Dan saved her life.

The set was exceedingly bland, but more or less served its purpose. The most distracting element were the projections, which were abstract enough to not usefully distinguish anything useful about location, except for the police station which had a huge police crest and was exceedingly patronizing, as though the audience could not figure out for themselves where we were.

The lighting design was mostly effective, but as characters moved downstage to deliver monologues, they passed through several areas of shadow. Normally not a big deal if they are not speaking, the fact that this happened as they were delivering monologues was jarring. Likewise, once downstage the lighting was at such an angle that the eyes of the performers were in black holes of shadow with no front fill to relieve the shadows.

If this were a workshop, I might have suggested taking the scene between Janie and Connor and using that to re-invigorate the rest of the show. Sadly this was not a workshop.

Overall, The Valley combines an unbelievable script that tries to say too much and ends up not saying anything, with half-hearted performances and seemingly slapdash design.

To April 7

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