Esther Purves-Smith and Kyle Jespersen. Photo Credit : Trudie Lee Photography
March 6 – April 7, 2013
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my live review of The Valley on CBE Eyeopener on Monday, March 18 at 8:20
It’s a huge relief when your worst fears about a play don’t come true. Upon learning that Joan MacLeod’s new play, The Valley, addressed the intersection of policing and mental illness, I braced myself for the possibility of a heavy-handed narrative demonizing cops and canonizing citizen victims. MacLeod after all is one of the darlings of Canadian social justice theatre. And while I was thankful we were spared this tired villain authority figure trope, my relief turned to shock when I realized what the audience was given in its place – a narrative where the only truly likeable and empathetic character is the officer and a plotline where all other players are drawn as either forgettable or irksome.
The ripped from the headlines story is fairly unimaginative – Connor (Zachary Dugan), a teenage boy has a psychotic break on the Vancouver Skytrain, threatening the passengers with his erratic behaviour including swinging a curled up, spiked paper baton around in a crowded car. Dan (Kyle Jesperson), an on-duty police officer who responds to the emergency call, tries but fails to calm Connor down and ends up arresting, cuffing and accidentally injuring the boy in the process. Connor’s mother Sharon (Esther Purves-Smith) outraged at what she sees as excessive force, police brutality and the cop’s inability to differentiate between a criminal and someone who is mentally ill, files a complaint with Dan’s superiors. The other notch in this narrative belongs to Dan’s wife Janie (Erin MacKinnon), a stay-at-home new mother with a junkie past who may or may not be suffering from depression and a drug relapse.
As obvious as the set up may be, The Valley had lots of potential to get inside the heads of each of these characters and showcase the issue from all points of view. And MacLeod tries to do this by giving each role several monologue moments including a recitation of their history of prior police interactions. But how do you connect or empathize with characters you don’t like or care enough about to understand?
Connor isn’t particularity pleasant before his illness, making his sudden and unexplained onset of emotional disturbance a cold fact rather than something to be heartbroken over. Connor’s mother is far more concerned with blaming the cops for her son’s broken jaw then she is with actually comforting or showing any emotional tenderness to her son. When her complaint goes nowhere (far too fast for it to have even been a plot device in the first place) she natters on about what Connor “must do” to get better rather than participating in his recovery in any meaningful way. Apart from helping to illustrate what a caring and decent husband and father Dan is, Janie is the odd duck out in this narrative seemingly squished into the plot to both add a ‘them against us’ dynamic and to layer on an unrelated and unnecessary drug/depression victim element to the plot. Once again, Janie is neither particularly likeable nor a well enough written character to illicit any sympathy for her pain.
Which leaves Dan. Who would have thought the cop would be the most reasonable, relatable, believable and most fully written character in the play. Even when MacLeod tries to imbue him with flaws (brushing off Janie’s half-assed cries for help by saying that she’s just tired from the baby or harshly judging his brother’s laziness and refusing to consider the possibility that it’s depression plaguing his sibling) he comes off as a decent, somewhat naïve man who maybe just needs to get more in touch with his feelings and the feelings of those around him. And while it’s refreshing to see a police officer portrayed as a real human being with a good heart and admirable motivations, this sole empathetic character skews the whole purpose of The Valley beyond redemption. There is no fair and equal examination of the issues or the players involved. The audience is left with no choice but to take Dan’s side for most of the play and that is terribly unsatisfying no matter how you feel personally about the issue.
Also working against this production is Linda Moore’s direction which gives full room for the uneven performances by every member of the cast. Purves-Smith and Dugan fare well enough when sparing as mother and son, but each of them loses direction and impact when delivering the monologue portions of their dialogue. Purves-Smith’s stiff delivery and hollow emotion does her mother figure no favours and Dugan’s psychotic episodes have so little heft to them that they elicited audience laughter in places that should have been nothing short of wrenching. Jesperson and MacKinnon have the opposite problem – the husband and wife bring some depth and life to their solo dialogue but put them in a conversation with another character and it becomes amateur hour where the emotional range runs merely from A to B. Jespersen’s arrest of Connor was by far one of the most poorly staged and performed police scenes I have ever witnessed. Lacking both physical authority and vocal confidence, Jesperson dropped his lines flat on the stage as if he couldn’t wait to get rid of them. MacKinnon did manage to have presence in her scenes with Dan, but the only thing more lacking than the chemistry between the couple was MacKinnon’s ability to deliver dialogue that sounded the least bit natural. She fares somewhat better in an ill-conceived scene where she confronts and tries to comfort Connor, yet even here MacKinnon’s deadpan nasal delivery sounded like it belonged more in a comedy skit imitating the Kardashians than it did on stage with her character.
Rounding out my disappointment with this show was Scott Reid’s superfluous projection designs on vertical scrims flanking the back of the thrust stage. Comprising mostly of abstract northern-light type images of different hues, the projections did nothing to enhance the mood or feel of the play and served only to provide some much-needed texture/colour to the bare bones set and staging. But I’ll take Reid’s ambiguous blobs over the painfully literal close-up images of a cop’s suit and badge every time the action moved inside the police station. Trust that your audience gets the scene location without treating them like they are 8 years old and in need of the spelled out nod to place.
In fact, trust that your audience is ready to get down in the dirt with each and every character equally in this play. There are no true heroes or villains when it comes to policing and mental illness. I believe MacLeod and Moore wanted to take the audience on this journey. This was just the wrong vehicle to get us there.
For the guys – Your sympathies will easily flow towards the police character as you watch him try to be an honest cop, loving husband and good father. But then only liking this character isn’t the point of the play. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – Both women in this play are irritating. The mother lacks sense and the wife is so flatly drawn her struggle doesn’t resonate. Sure you’ll like the cop and maybe find some sympathy for Connor, but such little connection with the characters and issue will leave you unsatisfied. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – It’s topical in a “Law and Order” kind of set up and easy enough to follow along. But the tensions are fleeting and the resolution is sloppy. SKIP IT
For theatre junkies – This will disappoint you on every level, writing, acting and design. There are moments that work, but ultimately you’ll leave with nothing gained from the experience. SKIP IT