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 When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational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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Valentines through the ages & the private face of grief in Shotgun Juliet’s intimate, tender Jewel

Pip Dwyer in Jewel. Photo by Jackie Smulan.

 

Shotgun Juliet opened its production of Joan MacLeod’s Jewel, directed by Matthew Eger, to a packed house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

Jewel was inspired by the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s Day storm on the Atlantic on February 15, 1982, a national tragedy that saw 84 lives lost. The two-year Canadian Royal Commission that followed found numerous design and safety flaws, as well as ineffective inspection and regulation, and subsequently made a number of recommendations to the oil and gas industry, as well as the federal government. Lawsuits were settled out of court in a $20-million package, duly noted in the program notes as “peanuts for oil companies.”

Jewel puts a deeply personal face on this tragedy. Set in the Peace River Valley on Valentine’s Day 1985, three years after the accident, we’re in Marjorie’s (Pip Dwyer) mobile home. Dressed in a flannel nighty, long johns, boots and a heavy knit jacket, and holding a bucket of milk, we find her standing in her kitchen, starring a million miles away. Remembering.

She recounts Valentine’s Days over the years, a personal history of romance that is both touching and hilariously funny. Especially endearing is the unfolding romance with Harry, who proposed to her – a city girl from Calgary – in a tent in Northern Alberta. And then Valentine’s Day 1982, when Harry was one of the men working on the Ocean Ranger and the RCMP arrived on her doorstep. Listening to country music and local messages on the radio, and occasionally hollering at the dog to stay outside, she shares homemade beer and speaks to Harry throughout – and the love comes through. The heartache. The loss. The disbelief. The anger. The trying to move on.

Dwyer gives a luminous, compelling performance in this emotional, haunting solo show. Radiating that classic, independent Prairie girl can-do attitude, her Marjorie is cheeky, funny and straight-talking – and also deeply vulnerable. Fiercely and romantically committed to her marriage, Marjorie’s still wearing her wedding ring and speaking with the ghost of her love three years after he’s gone. The reason for this loss is infuriating – and we share her disbelief and anger, the intimate staging putting us in that mobile home kitchen with her. And that private expression of love, loss and grief is both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch.

With shouts to John Dwyer, who supplied his voice-over talents as the affable local Radio Host. And to the design team, including Jackie Smulan, Blair Purdy and the company for the homey, detailed kitchen set, and the equally warming music and evocative atmospheric sound.

Valentines through the ages and the private face of grief in Shotgun Juliet’s intimate, tender Jewel.

Jewel continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre till February 14, with evening performances at 8pm and a matinee on February 11 at 2pm; advance tickets available online. It’s an intimate space and a short run, so advance booking is strongly recommended.