by Lynn on November 14, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At At Tarragon Mainspace, Toronto. Written by Joan MacLeod. Directed by Richard Rose. Set and lighting by Graeme S. Thomson. Costumes by Charlotte Dean. Composer and sound by Todd Chariton. Starring: Susan Coyne, Ian Lake, Colin Mercer, Michelle Monteith.

Plays at Tarragon Theatre until December 15.

In the space of little more than a week I’ve seen plays by two playwrights who are champions of the people. Last week it was Moss Park (at Theatre Passe Muraille) by George F. Walker. Walker champions those on the edges of society; the marginalized; the ones that are not noticed or avoided. Tonight it was The Valley (at Tarragon Theatre, Mainspace) by Joan MacLeod. MacLeod champions the ordinary folk trying to make sense of their world; trying to come to grips with a dilemma. In The Shape of a Girl  MacLeod dealt with bullying among young teens. In Another Home Invasion it’s trying to cope with aging with dignity; and struggling to cope with the difficulties of caring for our elderly loved ones with sensitivity.

In her program note for The Valley MacLeod writes:  “In the end, this play resides on the same turf as most of my work—that is looking at an issue through the lens of family—or in the case of The Valley two families—and trying to figure out what makes them, and all of us, connected.

The play begins with the four characters remembering their various interactions with the police. Some of those recollections are as victims of a crime that needed police intervention; others are as people breaking the law in which the police intervened to protect society at large.

At the centre of The Valley is Connor. He is eighteen years old, a writer of fantasy stories; who goes off to university, full of promise and enthusiasm. It doesn’t work out. He comes home for the holidays and announces to his mother, Sharon (his parents are divorced) he’s going to drop out of school. He is not forthcoming with what has happened. As much as his mother tries to pry it out of him, Connor becomes more introverted and unreachable.

The other family in the play is Dan and Janie, a young couple with a seven month old baby. Janie is trying with difficulty coping with being at home with only the baby as company. When Dan comes home from work, she wants to talk to a him, a grown-up. He’s had a stressful day and doesn’t want to hear how bad her day is.

And then the worlds of these two families collide? Connect?

One day Connor is on the subway swinging what looks like a rod of sorts at the others on the train.  In fact it’s really a stiff tube of wrapped fliers he’s supposed to distribute. The police are called. Dan is one of them. Connor is obviously in some kind of mental state. Dan tries to calm him down until Connor swings at him and Dan has to forcibly take him down and handcuff him. In the process Connor’s jaw is broken.

One is quick to think of too much police force. Mental illness appears in many guises. And yes we think of all the recent news headlines in which people with mental illness posed a threat and were shot by police. But MacLeod is such a subtle, thoughtful writer she knows that there are many sides to every story and she reveals them with patience until we see the truth. MacLeod always puts a human face on the issues she examines and she deals with them with sensitivity, fairness and compassion.

Connor, Sharon, Dan and Janie could be our family putting on a brave face, struggling to get through the day. They are ordinary. They could be the people we sit next to at the theatre. In a wonderful piece of stage business director Richard Rose has the cast enter the theatre as the audience does. So as Connor, Colin Mercer sits on this side of the playing space in the front row (the audience is on either side of the playing area); Susan Coyne as Sharon sits over there in the front row; Michelle Monteith as Janie sits in the front row on house right; and Ian Lake as Dan sits on the far side at the end of the front row. They fit in. Innocuous. Until they take their place centre stage and tell of their recollections of the police.  As the play unfolds the characters not in a scene take their seats and watch the play with us.

As Connor, Colin Mercer is that articulate, eager kid, who turns into a troubled, depressed young man; who flinches when his mother tries to reach out to him. Mercer beautifully realizes Connor’s anguish and draws the audience in.

As Sharon, his mother, Susan Coyne is wonderful in showing both her exasperation and frustration in dealing with her son. Sharon is a caring woman but initially clumsy in recognizing Colin’s deep distress and how to deal with it. When she finally does it’s heart-squeezing.

We get an interesting perspective on Dan the police officer and his challenging home life and certainly as played by Ian Lake. Dan has a hugely stressful job and comes home to a wife who has her own mental issues to deal with. In Lake’s nuanced performance we see a man trying to deal with his challenging work and family with patience and understanding, but at times being over whelmed by the stress of it all.

And finally as Janie, Michelle Monteith brings out her quivery angst. Janie is a woman trying desperately to hold it together, cope, hang on, and it’s all revealed in Monteith’s quietly stunning performance.

The Valley is a gripping, emotional play that will have you shifting your allegiance from one character to another as the truth is revealed. It’s written by the gifted Joan MacLeod who always looks into the heart of an issue and sees the truth in many guises; who reveals her characters with all their frailties and flaws, and connects us all as a result.

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