Trip through PTE’s The Valley bumpy, but compelling

The truth is cold and hard in Joan MacLeod’s The Valley, which is the latest production from Prairie Theatre Exchange. And as CBC's Joff Schmidt explains, the scripts holds many surprises for the audience.

Play deals with the difficult issue of depression

“There’s three sides to every story,” Don Henley sang. “Yours and mine and the cold hard truth.”

The truth is indeed cold and hard in Joan MacLeod’s The Valley, a 2013 play by the Governor General’s Award winner which is the latest production from Prairie Theatre Exchange. But here, the truth has four sides, and unravelling it makes for some compelling drama - in spite of an uneven production.

The play centres around an incident at a Vancouver SkyTrain station. When Connor’s (Toby Hughes) spiral into depression manifests itself in an incident on the train, he has a violent encounter with Dan (Alden Adair), a police officer. Dan’s wife Janie (Elizabeth Stephensen) and Conner’s mother Sharon (Nancy Sorel) try to parse the truth of what happened in that incident - while also walking through the valley of despair that is clinical depression.
Alden Adair as police officer Dan and Nancy Sorel as Sharon in The Valley (Bruce Monk)

MacLeod’s script offers plenty of surprises, right up to its ending. It’s a reflective, nuanced take on mental illness that has the ring of authenticity to it, and it deftly avoids stereotype and easy answers. It also means, though, that The Valley is also often bleak - this is not easy viewing.

And director Ann Hodges’ production doesn’t always make it easier. The four performances here are a mixed bag. As the depressed teen Connor, Hughes is the standout - he delivers his opening monologue with a halting, quiet delivery that endears him to the audience, and manages to hold our sympathy even as Connor slides into irrationality, and sometimes cruelty.

Adair is solid as Dan, the well-intentioned cop who isn’t always as caring as he might be - but whose “why can’t he pull himself out of it” attitude toward mental illness is still common enough to sound familiar. Stephensen’s Janie doesn’t really get to shine until later in the play, but she delivers fine work in those later scenes.

Sharon is, unfortunately, the most thinly-drawn character in MacLeod’s play, often stuck in the thankless role of “nurturing mother.” But it nonetheless feels like there are more layers to the character than Sorel mines, in a performance that doesn’t quite have the range needed to make the character feel real and relatable.

The production is hampered, too, in part by design. Brian Perchaluk’s minimalist set is divided into quarters by a yellow tactile strip, like those found on subway platforms, running left to right - and a track-like line running upstage to down. It’s an effective way to visually express the four solitudes of the play’s characters, and lets the action move swiftly from scene to scene. But it also hems the actors into small playing areas, and Hodges’ staging too often feels stilted and lifeless as a result.
Alden Adair as Dan and Elizabeth Stephensen as his wife Janie, suffering from postpartum depression. (Bruce Monk)

Similarly, pacing in the preview performance I saw felt like it hadn’t hit its mark (a problem which may well correct itself as the run goes on). While there are certainly moments (like Connor’s opening monologue) where the production benefits from breathing room, there were also some where the flow of dialogue was simply too sluggish to feel natural.

On the plus side, the production gets visual flair from Scott Henderson’s sharp lighting design, and subtle, evocative music and sound design from Ian Hodges.

The production’s flaws rob the play of some of the emotional impact it might have - it engages the head somewhat more than the heart, in the end. But despite that, the questions it raises about how we deal with mental illness in our society remain engaging. It’s imperfect theatre, but it is a play with something important to say to those willing to travel through a dark valley with its characters.

The Valleyruns at Prairie Theatre Exchange until March 16.

PTE will be hosting a reading and “meet and greet” with playwright Joan MacLeod on Friday, Feb. 28 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the PTE lobby.