Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: (Winnipeg / Theatre) The Valley

Alden Adair, Nancy Sorel (photo by Bruce Monk)
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
Climbing out of The Valley is never simple.
by Edgar Governo

Depression and mental illness in general have a complex and often paradoxical place in our society, which criticizes people for not getting treatment or seeing the signs of a problem in others while also attaching a stigma to those who need therapy and/or medication to deal with such problems. Although there is a wide spectrum between being completely neuro-typical and having delusional psychotic breaks, people are often reduced to those who are on the 'right' and 'wrong' side of an arbitrary psychological divide.

The Valley revolves around a central encounter between Connor (Toby Hughes), a teenager who has returned home from university because of a debilitating mental illness, and Dan (Alden Adair), the Vancouver cop who has to confront him one day at a SkyTrain station. Playwright Joan MacLeod isn't concerned with creating a Rashomon-like story about ambiguity over what happened in that encounter, but with how our inner turmoils affect our take on reality; even when two or more people can agree on the main facts of a situation, each person's perception of its emotional landscape is different.

Dan already has to deal with another form of mental illness in his personal life, as his wife Janie (Elizabeth Stephensen) is struggling with a severe form of postpartum depression, and the play suggests (without spelling it out explicitly) that Janie has had a long and troubled past with Dan as her only support. Connor also seems to have only the support of his mother Sharon (Nancy Sorel), who gently encourages him to seek out more help and steadfastly stands up for him in the face of many rebukes. Despite having someone there who loves them and cares about their well-being, Connor and Janie need more than a single rock or anchor to hold onto, and MacLeod effectively conveys the helplessness and occasional frustration that both Sharon and Dan feel at not being able to heal their loved ones themselves.

Hughes and Stephensen are both convincing at portraying two very different (but equally serious) forms of depression, and Adair manages to strike a delicate balance between sincere caring and jaded cynicism as a cop who is weary of trying to help those who can't help themselves on the streets of Vancouver. Sorel is the weakest link amongst the four-person cast, but Sharon's affection and concern for her son are clear, and it seems more like she may have had to struggle with a part that was underwritten compared to the varied emotional notes of the other characters. Director Ann Hodges deserves credit for helping to evoke such sensitive performances, though she engages in some flourishes which do nothing to enhance the play--the stage is divided into quarters, seemingly representing the four viewpoints at work, but the staging doesn't adhere to any consistent pattern to justify this division, and the occasional projections of pouring rain or dark swarms of birds feel too on-the-nose as a visual representation of despondency for my tastes.

Some of the Vancouver references were also too specific for someone like me who has had little experience in that city. (One joke at the expense of Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo went completely over my head until I had it explained to me.) I immediately recognized an oblique reference to serial killer Robert Pickton, but it only served to remind me that the issue of race as a factor in crime and the treatment of mental illness in Canada goes unaddressed in The Valley, whose characters (as portrayed in this production at the Prairie Theatre Exchange) are all white. As a Winnipegger, these issues are frequently entwined with the plight of this city's Aboriginal population--particularly when many real-life police officers are in the same position as Dan, thrust into the role of front-line mental health workers--so some acknowledgement of this intersectionality would've been appreciated.

Each of us starts out alone with our thoughts, and our noonday demons are often only visible to ourselves even when they affect the lives of everyone around us. In a week when someone can go on a murderous rampage in an Edmonton warehouse while controversy swirls around the treatment of another mentally ill murderer in Manitoba, the inadequacy of our society's response to mental illness (and the sometimes tragic or violent consequences of that) has never seemed more timely.

Feb. 27 -  Mar. 16

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