— Pippa Mackie and Robert Salvador. Photo by Emily Cooper
Now a resident of Victoria, Joan MacLeod is probably Vancouver’s finest living playwright (with apologies to Morris Panych). Her work deals seriously, elegantly and humorously with significant topical social issues—refugees (Amigo’s Blue Guitar), AIDS (The Hope Slide), bullying (The Shape of a Girl), dementia (Another Home Invasion). Her characters face personal and socio-political crises, usually coming up short but ultimately taking responsibility. MacLeod’s plays don’t offer solutions, but her own sense of ethical responsibility means that they almost always offer some hope.
Beautifully written and performed, The Valley concerns the vectors between mental illness, law enforcement and family. Smart, imaginative 19-year-old Connor (Daniel Doheny) begins suffering from depression, and when he has a violent psychotic episode at a Skytrain station, police officer Dan (Robert Salvador) takes him down. Connor’s mother Sharon (Kerry Sandomirsky) tries desperately to help her only child and accuses Dan of police brutality. Meanwhile, Dan’s wife Janie (Pippa Mackie), home all day with their newborn, is suffering her own brand of depression.
Each of the characters has a monologue or two interspersed with short, sharp dramatic scenes on Amir Ofek’s abstract set, a severely raked round platform thrusting into the audience with a large black hole looming at an angle above it. We learn how hard it is to be these people, and how hard it is for them to be with each other.
Sharon struggles to keep her son afloat but also drives him crazier with her relentless caring. All their scenes together are terrific—and excruciating. Trying to be a good husband and father and a good cop, Dan wrestles with both difficult roles. It’s a toss-up as to whether we think he’s a hero or a creep. Connor and Janie both push the ones who love them to the limit. The scene between the two of them is quietly very powerful.
Director Mindy Parfitt does a fine job keeping all these forces in balance, and the actors are excellent, Doheny in particular, registering Connor’s terrifying descent into the dark recesses of depression. Sandomirsky is superb as Sharon, helpless in the face of her son’s illness but unyielding in her mission to help save him, even when he behaves horribly to her. Mackie nicely renders Janie’s vulnerability without sentimentality. There’s a little too much cop cliché in Salvador’s Officer Dan, but he’s the most conflicted character and Salvador pulls it off in the end.
Itai Erdal’s lighting, Owen Belton’s sound and Jamie Nesbitt’s projections are especially effective in a series of sequences involving a science fiction fantasy Connor is writing.
MacLeod editorializes once or twice about under-resourced, under-trained police having to deal with the mentally ill. But mainly she’s concerned with the way individuals and families cope—or fail to—with the consequences of such conditions and events. The Valley takes us down into the depths but MacLeod refuses to leave us in despair.