Looking beyond mental illness to see the person in the intense, affecting The Valley

Photo by Keagan Heathers. Graphic design by Ali Carroll.

 

Don’t Look Down Theatre Company, in support of CAMH, presents an intense, affecting production of Joan McLeod’s The Valley, directed by co-Artistic Director Ryan James and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace. Inspired by the shocking 2007 tasering death of Robert Dziekanski during his arrest at the Vancouver airport, The Valley looks at the experience of mental health issues; and the assumptions about and reactions to someone living with mental illness, from the perspective of loved ones and law enforcement.

Eighteen-year-old Connor (Daniel Entz) is an intelligent, engaged, aspiring sci-fi writer—that is, until he goes off to Calgary to university. When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational suspicion of his dorm roommate. And now, a young man who was previously excited to go off to university is insisting that he can’t go back. A divorced single mom, Sharon is navigating her own troubles—and her desperate attempts to help and cheer her son only serve to agitate him more, resulting in an increased level of stress and worry for her.

Meanwhile, Vancouver cop Dan (Cedric Martin) is becoming more and more cynical about and dissatisfied with his job. Faced with an ongoing array of people with serious substance and behaviour issues, he finds it hard to feel that his work makes a difference. Feeling the pressures of being a new father, as well as looking after his emotionally fragile wife Janie (Alexa Higgins), a recovering addict, he sucks it all up and carries on, finding refuge in his bicycle. Janie is struggling with post-partum depression and sleep deprivation; and is deeply troubled that she can’t seem to connect with their infant son Zeke. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Dan to understand what she’s going through—and she’s feeling increasingly at her wit’s end.

The worlds of these two intimate family units collide when Connor experiences a psychotic break on public transit and Dan arrives on the scene. Scared and confused, and brandishing what appears to be a weapon—in actual fact, a rolled up bunch of fliers, which he drops at Dan’s command—Connor becomes even more agitated, lashing out while Dan attempts to cuff him, hands behind his back. Dan’s use of force to restrain him escalates, resulting in Connor sustaining a broken jaw. Outraged, Sharon files a complaint and tries to get Dan to see who Connor really is—a talented, intelligent young man and not just a mental illness. When that fails, she suggests a resolution-oriented approach: a healing circle that includes Dan, Janie, Connor and herself. Janie is all for it, but Dan is having none of it.

Lovely, focused work from this cast on the sensitive, timely subject of mental illness. Entz gives us a deep dive into Connor’s tormented psyche, surfacing with a physically and emotionally present performance. We can see Connor’s tightly wound, tortured soul torn between withdrawing in fear from the world, and reaching out for help and connection. Fairbairn gives a heart-wrenching performance as Sharon; dealing with her own emotional upheaval, Sharon’s profound desire to do the best she can for her son comes out in bursts of unsolicited advice and talkative cheerleading, pushing her son further into his own world and making her feel even more helpless.

Martin’s multidimensional performance goes a long way toward making us feel empathy for Dan. Dan is trying his best to be a good cop and a supportive husband, but lack of awareness and misconceptions about mental health and mental illness get in his way—as do his own personal demons, particularly an increasingly dark view of his career in law enforcement. Higgins gives a touching, layered performances as Janie, bringing a sweetness and optimism, as well as a strength that underlies Janie’s vulnerability. Faking it till she makes it only gets Janie so far, and she soon comes face to face with her own troubled past.

Good people with the best of intentions can fall short in their drive to be effective and helpful allies for those living with mental illness. How do we increase awareness—for both the public and law enforcement—and bring the focus onto the people behind the illness, who are struggling and need support? The Valley puts a face on mental illness, reminding us that we’re all grappling with internal conflict. And that compassion, understanding and empathy go a long way to providing healthy, helpful support and making meaningful connections.

With shouts to stage manager/lighting designer Chin Palipane for the cool, atmospheric lighting effects.

The Valley continues in the TPM Backspace until September 23; 7:30 p.m. curtain for evening performances and 2:00 p.m. weekend matinees (Please note: Sun, Sept 16 matinee has been moved to 7:30 p.m.). Book advance tickets online or by calling 416-504-7529.

You can also keep up with Don’t Look Down Theatre Company on Twitter. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

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New Ideas: Alternate perceptions, unexplained events & magical connections in the haunting, hilarious, heartfelt Week 2 program

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 30th annual New Ideas Festival (NIF) of short new works last week; the three-week festival presents a different program of plays each week, plus staged readings on Saturdays at noon. I caught the Week Two program up in the Studio last night.

Sweet Mama and the Salty Muffins by Ciarán Myers, directed by Kendra Jones. Haunted by a catchy Appalachian folk song that sends her back to the moment her three-year-old daughter disappeared at an outdoor concert, a mother (Lisa Lenihan) tries to make us see the sense of her account of the inexplicable aftermath of the event. Do we believe her? Is it all in her mind?

Lenihan is quirky and heartbreakingly lonely as the mother in this 15-minute solo piece. Desperate for someone to believe her and neurotically self-conscious of sounding mentally ill, the mother is confident in what she saw. And she realizes it sounds beyond strange and impossible, but she believes it with all her heart. Maybe because she has to.

If Socrates were in My Shoes by Donna Langevin, directed by Carl Jackson. Set in 1930, Jean (Nicholas Koy Santillo), who’s gained fame as a daredevil, meets down on his luck writer George (Andreas Batakis), who’s working as a cook to pay the bills. George is despondent over not being able to find a publisher for his book and Jean suggests a death-defying stunt to get publicity: going over Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. How far is George willing to go to self-publish his book?

Nice work from the actors in this metaphysical dramedy. Santillo brings an affable charm and cockiness, with a touch of con artist, to Jean; a man with a wife and six kids to feed at home, Jean does what he needs to do to make ends meet. Batakis gives George an interesting combination of melancholy and driven, earnest and fanciful, pensive and desperate. There’s an air of dark, edgy mystery around George. What is the true nature of his intense relationship with the teachings of Socrates?

Stars by D.J. Sylvis, directed by Gillian Armstrong. Two lives revolve around each other thousands of miles apart in this lovely, cosmically magical two-hander. Akia (Alexa Higgins) and Ren (Katherine Cappellacci) have never met, but they’re falling in love in a long-distance relationship as they gaze at the stars during a cellphone conversation.

Playing out this beautifully tender, funny and heartbreaking romance—all in 15 minutes—Higgins and Cappellacci have great chemistry, complementing each other perfectly with this pair of opposites. Higgins is a starry-eyed romantic as the astronomy nerd Akia; and Cappellacci is earthy and cynical as the sci-fi dork Ren.

Moving On by Elmar Maripuu, directed by Helly Chester. Kyle (Michael Ricci) has a brilliant software idea and Shelley (Lena Maripuu) is helping him find an investor. Trouble is the investor she’s putting forward is under suspicion of absconding with Kyle’s small home town pension fund. This problem of conscience is comically compounded by the appearance of Jodie (Rachelle Mazzilli), Kyle’s high school sweetheart.

Equal parts hilarious and heart-wrenching, this three-hander cast does a great job. Ricci’s Kyle is a visionary, and also loyal, good-humoured and sweet. He longs to bring his plans to fruition, but is torn about aligning himself with the man who may have swindled his friends and family back home. Maripuu is a big bundle of madcap fun as Shelley; possessing boundless energy and talking a mile a minute, there’s more than meets the eye as we get a glimpse into Shelley’s past and secret desires. Mazzilli is adorably irreverent and cocky as Jodie; playfully seductive, Jodie isn’t quite sure what’s up with this visit with Kyle. Are old fires lighting up again or are they just riding a wave of memory?

The Week Two program also includes a staged reading on Saturday, March 17 at noon, followed by a talkback. Mirage: The Arabian Adventures of Gertrude Bell by Laurie Fyffe; featuring actors Fallon Bowman, Rosey Tyler, Saphire Demitro, May Tartoussy, Arun Varma, Ethan Saulnier, Sean Dwyer, Matthew Olivier and Erin Humphry.

The NIF Week Two program continues in the Alumnae Theatre Studio until March 18. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office: 416-364-4170, ext. 1 (cash only at the box office). Performances run Wednesday – Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday (with a post-show talkback) and Sunday at 2:30 pm. Check out the Week Three program, running March 21 – 25.

It’s a very popular festival and an intimate venue, so advance booking is strongly recommended. In the meantime, check out the Week Two trailer by Nicholas Porteous: