Thursday 14 April 2016

The Valley chases real & elusive demons
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \  Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : It is said that every encounter between people, where there's a witness, has at least four truths to it. The "omniscient" truth -- what a 3-D sound-camera would capture. The protagonist's truth. The antagonist's truth. The witness's truth. Thus there is never but one truth. Nor will any truth be absolute. And none can be 100% discounted, either.

VPD gets a public disturbance call at the Joyce Street Skytrain station. Constable Dan attends. Encounters teenager Connor who is flailing a bat of some sort 'round and 'round his head as if scaring passengers away from his space. He looks delirious. Dan treats him like a common assaulter. When Connor lunges for his dropped baton, Dan overpowers him, cuffs him, and breaks his jaw in the process. Connor's mom insists it's police brutality and demands justice. The question : is a cop's Job#1 to restore public order? Or is there another "truth" or two when apparent mental illness is involved that need to factor in?

Any tour on Skytrain around Vancouver reveals the complex composition of people who crush its station platforms and cars. Lots of sketchy conduct at the Commercial Drive station or New Westminster station or Main Street station, which I frequent weekly in my travels. Since the closure of Coquitlam's Riverview and Tranquille in Kamloops in the early 80's, fact is thousands of people with mental health disabilities are elbow-to-elbow with the hoi polloi in metro Vancouver. Joan MacLeod in The Valley explores how peoples' everyday struggles intersect, how all their truths demand empathy. The ACT production at Granville Island through May 7th is a touching observation & disquisition about how these daily human encounters call out for our better angels to shadow us.

How it's all put together : Most plays proceed in a linear manner. As in beginning, middle, end. Exposition, rising action, climax, denouement. Such, playwright MacLeod seems to be saying, is not the case at all in life. Arrhythmia. Contradiction. Irony. Paradox. All these influences moment by moment for each of us. Else why would divorced and overprotective single-kid Mom Sharon Crane (Kerry Sandomirsky) ever think that being perky & chirpy & and ever-up-tempo & always crazy-praisy would do anything but further alienate and upset son Connor (Daniel Doheny) as his nascent schizophrenia develops and he struggles to get a grip. She is less mother than smother

Or take VPD Cst. Dan Milano (Robert Salvador). When he comes home to wife Janie (Pippa Mackie), she's an emotional smudgepot struggling with postpartum depression. An ex-cocaine drug addict with goof Jason, she now spends her day, all day, with a typical blubbering needy five-month-old. Janie wants to talk with Dan, share with him her angst and pain at being sequestered and cloistered. He just goes blah-blah-blah. All he wants is to zone out and decompress from the occasional gritty encounters he's had but more often days of uneventful boring drive-arounds with his partner Denise. (He is amused by how baby Zeke's feet are growing but never wants to snuggle him.)

These four characters criss-cross through circumstance. Sharon insists they meet to play out a hippie-version of indigenous healing circle\restorative justice. Ultimately mentally-troubled Connor and mentally-troubled Janie manage to connect : like seeks out like often enough. At one moment she counsels Connor against his own thoughts of suicide, then shortly she stumbles into just such an attempt herself. Another paradox in a world where brain chemistry is out of balance. (The tragic stories out of Attawapiskat need but be summoned for proof of same.)

In the end MacLeod provides no resolution to these various conflicts and tensions other than Sharon ultimately starts to let go of Connor. One can only hope she stops herself from her constant attempts to rein in life. Just let it be what it will be. For Dan and Janie it looks more of the same : likeable though he is, he will doubtless carry on trying to talk around Janie's mal de vivre instead of helping her through it.

What this show tries to bring front-of-stage : Numerous police incidents with mentally unstable folk have splashed across t.v. screens and YouTube in recent years. Starting with Vancouver Film School animator Paul Boyd in August 2007 shot nine times after waving a bicycle chain wildly overhead for some time in a stand-off. Then two months later Polish visitor Robert Dziekanski's taser gun death @ YVR by four RCMP. More recently the shooting of Phuong Na Du in November, 2014  after behaving erratically, shouting and waving a piece of 2 x 4 lumber in the air at Knight St. & 41st. MacLeod and countless others argue there is a need for more sensitivity and creative intervention when dealing with episodes involving mental imbalance whether drug-induced or psychotic. (Irony : rampaging bears are not destroyed. They are tranquilized and removed to safe environments. Not mentally ill people having an episode. Them we shoot to kill.)

Background stat : A 2012 survey commissioned by Ottawa known as the Canadian Community Health Survey, a.k.a. CCHS-12MH, provides these revealing metrics : "According to the CCHS-12MH, 18.4%, or approximately 5 million Canadians, reported coming into contact with the police in the previous 12 months. Of those 5 million Canadians who came into contact with police, approximately one in five (18.8%) met the criteria of a mental or substance use disorder." That is 940,000 disorder incidents. 2,600 per day. More than 100 per hour. Given such frequency, is overt force to restrain an acting-out individual "to restore public order" always the first and highest and best option? Maybe some strategies more subtle that might take longer would be more appropriate.

For her part, McLeod's web-page makes this claim about her focus on everyday people and their struggles : "Her dramas are profoundly rooted in real-life challenges to the human spirit, but always avoid sermons and transcend political viewpoints. She uses current events as a staircase to create universal narratives that search out and celebrate our strangenesses, excesses and redemptions."

Dramatic techniques at play : Earlier I used the word "disquisition" to describe this show. Purposely. As in these synonyms : Sermon. Address. Thesis. For try as it might, particularly in Act 1, Valley is less a "play" than serial monologues by the characters setting out their encounters with police in their lives. All in the noble pursuit of stitching together a storyline about how the Joyce Street Skytrain station event, and other related incidents, will ultimately make whole dramatic cloth.

A raked, faux cracked-granite oval stage (Amir Ofek, Set Designer) slants the action toward the crowd, as if cut, roughly, from a random square satellite hurtling through space, its cut-out resembling what we might imagine a black hole to look like. A couple of homely metal school gym chairs + a duffel bag or two are the balance of the set.

When not centre-stage, the actors stand, back-to-audience, upstage left and right (Mindy Parfitt, Director) as if indifferent or offended by what their antagonists are saying stage centre. The visual effect -- the isolation, the bemusement, the anger, the stubbornness -- works well.

Lighting Designer Itai Erdal throws delightful electrical impulses up at the granite rectangle while Daniel recites from his teen-age novel about his hero Vasselon, about to die in the Valley of the Clouds : "Vasselon looked over at his beast. She understood him in a way no one ever had. He'd been trapped in the Valley of the Clouds as long as he could remember."  [N.B. This quote threw me instantly back to Hannah Green's semi-autobiographic novel I Never Promised You A Rose Garden that I was required to inflict on Grade 11 students in Newton, B.C. in 1969. In 1970 I boycotted Green and flipped the kids One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey instead.]

From common commentary upon show's exit, which aligns with my own view, Act 2 gives The Valley its dramatic punch. These previously caricature-characters who've monologue'd their stories in the first act now begin to interact. Mom Sharon reaches out. Connor, after multiple antipsychotic Rx experiments, begins to gain equilibrium. Cop Dan embraces wife Janie track-side despite her suicide attempt abandoning Zeke in his stroller.

Likely much change, really? Can't imagine it from Sharon who at the pinnacle of son Connor's decompensation and schizo-delerium dissertates : "I want you to imagine being well again. I want you to think of your whole life. This is just a bad chapter in the life of Connor. You need to visualize the end of this time." 

Also this exchange : Janie tells Dan about Zeke and herself. "I want to make him feel all warm and fuzzy but I can't somehow." Dan responds : "Go make yourself feel better!" "I don't know how to feel better...". "You've got me." "I guess so. Are you sure?" "You've got Zeke." "You're a good man, Dan, you're my anchor." Hmnnn.

Who gonna like : Despite my reservations about the dramatic arc of Joan  MacLeod's script, I would go see this show again primarily to watch the ACT debut performance of Daniel Doheny as Connor. Plus Mr. Salvador's well-developed character of Cst. Dan Milano, who has redeeming moments. Doheny's capture of a young man's descent into the maelstrom of despair and confusion that schizophrenia brings on is really quite superb and a marker of future performances to anticipate from this actor. Playwright McLeod's desire to raise our consciousness about whether we as a society are asking our police protectors to do too much -- or giving them a bye and asking them to do too little -- is no question a valid dramatic issue to pose.

Particulars :  By Joan MacLeod.  At ACT's Granville Island stage.  Run-time 110 minutes including intermission.  On until May 7th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Mindy Parfitt.  Set Designer Amir Ofek.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden.  Lighting Designer ltai Erdal.  Sound Designer Owen Belton.  Projection Designer Jamie Nesbitt. Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.

Performers  : Daniel Doheny (Connor).  Pippa Mackie (Janie).  Robert Salvador (Dan).  Kerry Sandomirsky (Sharon).  

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