Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Play tackles hard truths about mental illness

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The lines are drawn immediately and emphatically in The Valley, Joan MacLeod's intense exploration of the potential for mutual harm when police officers cross paths with the mentally ill on the street.

The stage at Prairie Theatre Exchange, where MacLeod's 10th play opened Thursday night, features two intersecting lines, a thin blue one representing the police and a yellow platform edge that riders must stay behind for their safety on Vancouver's SkyTrain, where a pivotal confrontation will take place. Brian Perchaluk's cleverly simple set conveys all you need to know about The Valley. The four quadrants on the stage represent the four characters, who are all at odds with each other.

The truth that MacLeod presents is, at times, unpleasantly realistic but compulsory to watch, as newspapers regularly report fatal encounters between police and emotionally disturbed people. For the audience, The Valley echoes with memories of those heartbreaking tragedies.

Connor is a typical, rebellious 18-year-old about to go away to college, no doubt partially to escape his well-meaning but smothering mother, Sharon. She is divorced and feels a need to be her son's best friend and protector, while he wants to be left alone to write his novels about a fantasy world. Then there's Dan, an average beat cop keen to uphold the law but alarmed at the way he has become a first responder for citizens suffering from loneliness or mental distress. He is a new father but his wife, Janie, is struggling with new motherhood and questions of self-worth.

MacLeod has each of her characters come clean about their history with police in monologues that describe minor scrapes, during which officers were mostly understanding and helpful. That was especially the case with Janie, a drug addict whom Dan rescued and married.

Connor lasts only a few months in college and returns home, much to his mother's disappointment. He is displaying signs of depression and holes up in his room, sleeping and smoking pot. He lands a job distributing flyers but his increasingly erratic behaviour comes to a head when he flips out on a SkyTrain, menacing passengers with what looks like a weapon but is really rolled-up flyers. Connor is confronted by the all-business Dan, who wrestles him to the ground. Connor suffers a broken jaw in the struggle.

The fairly minor encounter results in charges against Connor and a complaint filed by Sharon against Dan, whom she accuses of using excessive force during the arrest. MacLeod is not interested in the legal outcome but in the impact the skirmish has on the two families. There are no villains in The Valley, just victims.

The playwright is making a theatrical case for the need for front-line officers to receive special training on how to recognize symptoms of psychological disorders, as well as de-escalation techniques. Dan is made to look like the bad guy, a fixer with a black-and-white view of the world. He believes crimes are committed by "regular people making bad choices." He can't see that Connor is sick, nor that his wife is battling postpartum depression.

Director Ann Hodges fuses all the elements at her disposal into a solid, well-paced piece of theatre that has something important to say. Moments of humour are well-placed and appreciated. The acting is restrained but convincing.

Winnipeg's Toby Hughes manoeuvres confidently through Connor's valley of depression and is totally believable when he threatens his mother: "If you tell me one more time you know exactly how I feel because you went through the same thing when you were my age, I'm going to kill myself."

Alden Adair finds the balance of his flawed Dan, part hero, part Neanderthal. University of Winnipeg student Elizabeth Stephenson earns the most empathy for her Janie, who must put up with her oblivious husband's too-frequent question, "What's wrong with you?" As Sharon, Nancy Sorel makes the best of a character who comes across as a bit of a pill.

MacLeod throws a late change-up to her story but leaves hope that her characters will cross the lines that separate them and find their place in a healing circle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 D3


Updated on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 7:38 AM CST: replaces photo

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