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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Exploring mental illness in The Valley

The premise behind Joan MacLeod’s The Valley, set to open at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage today in previews, may very well have been ripped from the headlines.

It is challenging for everybody to understand and appreciate that it is not about just pulling yourself out and putting your best foot forward. Mental illness and depression is as challenging for those people around them. – The Valley director, Mindy Parfitt

In The Valley, 18-year old Connor has a psychotic break on the Skytrain. First on the scene is a Vancouver cop, who soon finds himself accused of unnecessary force in his dealing with Connor. Add a protective mother looking for justice for her son and the cop’s wife who is struggling with her own mental illness, and it is a topical piece that is designed to resonate with locals.

“It is very impactful to see a show that is based in the city where you live,” says The Valley‘s director, Mindy Parfitt. “Being able to recognize the Skytrain, or the Seabus, or the other locations in the play that are very Vancouver can make it easier to see ourselves in the journey.”

While MacLeod’s setting may help in making the story more relatable for Vancouver audiences, it also puts a spotlight on a real-world issue that police face every day.  In 2014 alone it was estimated that the Vancouver Police department made, on average, eight arrests per day under the Mental Health Act. Last year, an analysis by the Georgia Straight concluded that of the 99 police-involved deaths since 2007, “90 percent involved a mental-health component, substance abuse, or both.”  Despite these troubling statistics, MacLeod takes a more balanced approach in The Valley.

“[MacLeod] doesn’t take a position either way,” says Parfitt when asked if the playwright takes a negative view of policing. “That is one of the beautiful things about how she has written the play; she doesn’t take a position, but what she does instead is give a full view on all the parts of the issue.”

Mindy Parfitt
Director Mindy Parfitt sees The Valley as a way of starting a dialogue around mental illness

Helping to highlight the mental-health issue from different perspectives, MacLeod presents her story by mirroring Connor’s very public breakdown with that of the police officer’s wife who is suffering from postpartum depression.  In doing so, MacLeod allows for an exploration of mental illness that doesn’t differentiate.

“MacLeod looks at it in two different frames from two very different expressions of depression,” says Parfitt. “She’s also looking at it from the perspective of different socio-economic groups, where the teen comes from affluent family and other is more working class.”

While The Valley does focus on the two characters dealing with their own mental health issues, Parfitt says the real power comes from focusing on how those around them deal with it.

“It is challenging for everybody to understand and appreciate that it is not about just pulling yourself out and putting your best foot forward,” says Parfitt.  “Mental illness and depression is as challenging for those people around them.”

“It looks at an issue through the lens of family – or in the case of The Valley, two families – and tries to figure out what makes these families, and all of us, connected,” says playwright Joan MacLeod.

For Parfitt that connection comes from a better understanding of the issues surrounding mental illness.

“The important thing about mental illness is that it largely misunderstood, and as a society we don’t talk about it enough,” she says. “People with mental illness tend to be ignored or misunderstood, and the beautiful thing about this play is while there is great love, care and respect from both families, a big part of it is in understanding that there is something wrong. That place of acceptance can allow for the healing, but it is getting to that point that is sometimes difficult.”

The Valley plays the Arts Club Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston St, Granville Island) from April 7-May 7. Visit for tickets and information.

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