Paul Love, Associate Toronto Critic
Like many other Canadian playwrights, Joan McLeod enjoys writing about Canada. But what sets her apart is her desire to peel back the peaceful veneer of Canadian society and reveal the stark reality of conflict and unease that often goes unacknowledged. This is true of her 2013 play, The Valley, which takes an unflinching look at mental health and, more specifically, the interaction of on-duty police officers with citizens suffering with mental illness. The Valley is currently being performed as part of Theatre on the Ridge’s Festival 2019 in Port Perry, Ontario.
Based on real events involving a violent arrest on a SkyTrain platform in McLeod’s hometown of Vancouver, The Valley looks closely at the lives of a young man named Connor (Michael Williamson), his over-protective mother, Sharon (Amanda Jane Smith), the arresting officer, Dan (Duncan Gibson-Lockhart), and Dan’s wife, Janie (Lexi MacRae), who is struggling with depression.
The play begins with Connor eagerly preparing to head off to start school at the University of Calgary while Sharon dotes on him, fighting the reality that her little boy has grown up. At the same time, Dan and Janie are adjusting to the excitement and challenge of being new parents, while also celebrating the fact that Janie has turned her life around from her days as a junkie. The play progresses towards the platform incident between Connor and Dan in a series of short vignettes and monologues that let us in on the fact that Connor and Janie are both struggling to keep up with and fit in with the world around them. We see how these struggles affect their relationships with the ones who care about them the most.
Michael Williamson’s performance as Connor is remarkably restrained and inward-looking; fear, anger, and manic excitement rumble and shake just below the surface, bursting through every so often. Amanda Jane Smith is believable in her performance as Sharon, particularly in those heartbreaking moments where she frantically searches for the unattainable “right thing to say” to help her son escape the darkness that envelops him. Duncan Gibson-Lockhart delivers a wonderfully layered performance as Dan, a cop who has to maintain a tough emotional exterior that matches his police-issue body armour, always having the right answer or fix for any issue without hesitation, but also a young father and husband with fears and concerns about his family, and who struggles with issues he doesn’t know how to fix. The way Mr. Gibson-Lockhart allows each of these sides of his personality to bleed into the opposing aspects of his life is riveting. Lexi MacRae gives a nuanced portrayal of Janie, communicating in mere facial expressions her painful battle with the feeling deep inside that something is not quite right in her world. Janie is fragile, yet so rooted in her determination to mend the damage caused by the incident involving Dan and Connor, that we see strength, too. Ms. McRae keeps us aware of this dichotomy throughout her performance.
McLeod’s words, along with the strong performances from all four actors, make plain the emotional pain and disconnection, and importantly, the often-subtle nature of mental illness. But McLeod draws no conclusions and takes no sides. She doesn’t tell you who acted appropriately and who did not, because that is not the point. Despite the cold reality that this story presents, McLeod maintains an ever-present hope — one that keeps all from being lost.
Director Carey Nicholson allows the stark reality of the play to take priority by using an appropriately minimalist set. Her choice to have the cast remain on stage throughout the majority of the play works well, as it allows the action to move forward without break, and the circular pattern in which the casts sits (and takes their curtain call) evokes the moments in the play where healing circles are discussed. Sound designer Victor Svenningson expertly creates a sense of the noise and chaos of a big city as well as the soundscape of a struggling mind. The beautiful — at times lonely — sounds of Stephen Rensink’s flute add further depth to this auditory palate. Colin Hughes’ lighting design works well, particularly when narrow spots are used for character monologues, helping to create a strong sense of isolation.
Mental health is a vital topic that is only beginning to get the attention it deserves. Theatre on the Ridge’s production of The Valley helps that cause immensely, presenting the audience some real truth about mental health, with some poignant, touching, and even funny moments and an overarching sense of hope mixed in.
Photo of Amanda Jane Smith (standing) and Michael Williamson provided by Barry McCluskey.
The show is being staged at the historic Town Hall 1873 in Port Perry, 302 Queen St. Remaining performances are July 30, 31, and August 2 at 7:30 pm, and August 3 at 2 pm.
For more information, visit www.theatreontheridge.ca.
The show is approximately 100 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.