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 When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational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:

 

Advertisements

SummerWorks: Death, fear & loneliness in the spine-tingling, darkly funny, Hitchcockian A Girl Lives Alone

Photo by Molly Flood.

Theatre Mischief gives us a spine-tingling, darkly funny turn—and a unique look at death, loneliness, fear and how people live together—in its SummerWorks production of Jessica Moss’s Hitchcock-inspired murder mystery comedy A Girl Lives Alone. Directed by Moss and the company, the show is currently running in the Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre.

New to her NYC apartment, Marion (Samantha Madely) returns home one night to find her fellow tenants assembled outside, their building taped off as a crime scene. A young woman in the building was murdered, at home in her apartment, the unknown perpetrator still at large. A murder mystery, Hitchcock fan obsessed with her ex-boyfriend’s classic murder mystery-inspired radio show podcast, Marion becomes hell-bent on investigating her neighbours in hopes of discovering the murderer. Gradually, she gets to know her fellow tenants: the opinionated, judgemental and fastidious Alma (Anita La Selva); the harried landlord Murray (Alexander Thomas); boyfriend/girlfriend pair the volatile Stewart (Aldrin Bundoc) and chatty Kim (Asha Vijayasingham); the nervous, quirky Janet (Jessica Moss); and the creepy, enigmatic Foley Artist upstairs (Andrew Musselman). Watching from the sidelines is the bubbly actress Grace (Tiffany Deobald), the murder victim. Grace lived alone.

The murder is a catalyst for a variety of shifting dynamics within the building; heightening suspicions, and driving self-advocacy and the realization that the tenants don’t particularly know each other that well. Their previous perceptions of safety and comfort profoundly shaken, no one in the building is the same. We see the dark and tender sides of the neighbours as the story unfolds; and everyone has their own way of coping. Janet binge-watches Friends on Netflix while others enjoy Law & Order SVU, Alma calls Murray out on a long-neglected repair to her place and Marion becomes Nancy Drew. Both terrified and fascinated by the strange Foley Artist who lives directly above her, Marion can’t stay away as he shows her the tricks of his trade, at her request, up in his place.

Outstanding work from the ensemble, riding a fine edge of comedy and psychothriller in this gripping, darkly funny tale of mystery, and dangers real and imagined. Noises in the dark—the young couple sexing or fighting, the Foley Artist at work, someone coming upon you suddenly—all take on new meaning and put everyone on edge. And some new, unexpected alliances are forged as well. What do you need to feel safe and comfortable in your own home? And how do women who live alone mitigate the risk? And how do you cope when the unthinkable happens so close to home?

With shouts to the design team for their gripping, atmospheric work on this production: composer/sound designer Richard Feren, set/costume designer Claire Hill and lighting designer Imogen Wilson.

A Girl Lives Alone has one more performance at SummerWorks: tonight (Aug 19) at 8:30 p.m.; advance tickets available online.