Mental health is rightly in the zeitgeist, in the media and onstage in Canadian playwright Joan MacLeod’s The Valley, playing now at PTE. Featuring a mother/son and husband/wife foursome whose lives intersect when a psychotic episode is broken up by police manhandling, the play tries to avoid the tacky preachiness found in most “issue plays” by sticking tightly to relationships strained by mental illness.
It’s half successful.
Toby Hughes is Connor, an intelligent, ambitious teen whose first stab at university ends with a sickening slide into two valleys: back to his parent’s upper middle class Fraser River Valley home and into the abyssal depths of depression. As the young fantasy writer, Hughes has to sell the condition of psychosis, but MacLeod doesn’t give him beyond that; it’s a limited albeit difficult part.
She doesn’t offer much more to concerned-mother-turned-caregiver Sharon (Nancy Sorel), who spends the play bashing her good intentions against the twin walls of unyielding law and her son’s irrational illness. Sorel’s presentational, unfelt delivery can’t find much nuance or traction in an underwritten, repetitive part and what you would think should be the linchpin relationship of the show doesn’t grab full emotional life.
But the far better crafted, dramatically staged and convincingly embodied relationship of VPD officer Dan (Alden Adair) and his reformed-addict wife Janie (Elizabeth Stephensen) picks up a lot of slack. With their own slow burn, codependency issues and unpredictable swings between affection and attack, they’re just a better play with better lines – especially thanks to Adair’s physical, charged presence. He’s the only one really successful at turning his testimonial, direct address sections into something natural.
There’s no great revelations on the subject matter here – not even much effort from the playwright to move the conversation forward. But The Valley is part of a larger push to normalize that talk. With a compelling couple filling half of the stage’s divided quadrants, it’s worth checking out.
By Joan MacLeod
Prairie Theatre Exchange
Through March 16
Directed by Ann Hodges; with Alden Adair, Toby Hughes, Nancy Sorel and Elizabeth Stephensen; set and costume design by Brian Perchaluk; lighting design by Scott Henderson; original music by Ian Hodges; fight choreography by Jacqueline Loewen; stage managed by Chris Pearce; assistant stage managed by Lisa Nelson.
Matthew TenBruggencate is a Winnipeg-based writer. He is owned by two cats. Follow him @tenbruggencate, where is he spreading nasty rumours about you.