Kerry Sandomirsky and Daniel Doheny play a family coming to terms with mental illness. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Kerry Sandomirsky and Daniel Doheny play a family coming to terms with mental illness. Photo by Emily Cooper.

When playwright Joan MacLeod wrote The Valley in 2014, it was hailed as ‘timely’, ‘urgent’ and ‘ripped from the headlines’. Open any newspaper today and it is evident that her exploration of mental illness and policing remains just as topical.

Following a very public breakdown at the Joyce Street Skytrain station, young university drop-out Connor finds himself in hospital after an altercation with the responding police officer. As Connor’s mother looks for someone to blame, her family becomes inextricably linked with that of the cop, and his wife who is suffering her own mental health issues following the birth of their son.

Told through a mix of monologues and short scenes between various pairings of the characters, under the direction of Mindy Parfitt much of the action takes on the feel of a First Nations’ healing circle. Reinforced and focused around Amir Ofek’s monolithic set design and Itai Erdal’s provocative lighting, as the characters recount their version of what happened they never leave the stage, providing a tension inside MacLeod’s often subtle story.

This is especially true in the first act as MacLeod slowly peels back the layers, revealing both the turmoil in, and connection between, the two families.  In act two, as the family’s stories converge and then pull apart, there is a dramatic shift that is wholly satisfying.  By the end, as both families move in opposite directions, the play’s emotional heft is in the realization that there is an ebb and flow to mental illness.

In addition to its exploration of mental illness, MacLeod also delves into a collective relationship with the police. In a balanced approach, MacLeod never takes sides, instead giving voice to those on both sides of the equation.

Pippa Mackie and Robert Salvador in The Valley. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Pippa Mackie and Robert Salvador play a couple grappling with their own mental health issues in The Valley. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Daniel Doheny makes his Arts Club debut with a crushing portrayal as Connor, embodying the trauma of mental illness with a compelling physical performance that matches his emotional one.  The interaction between Connor and veteran Kerry Sandomirsky, as his mother, is equally compelling, and the scenes between the two are both difficult to watch and heartfelt.

As the cop’s wife, Pippa Mackie has a tough time in act one as MacLeod gives her little more to work with as a mother with postpartum depression. A character we have seen countless times before, her turn comes in act two as we discover a greater darkness that manifests in a heart stopping scene on a Skytrain platform.  As her husband, Robert Salvador is convincing as the police officer who deals with mental illness on a daily basis; despite his protestations to the contrary, he is not as adept as he believes in leaving his personal life behind when he steps out onto the mean streets of Vancouver.

The pre-show lobby chatter centered on how mental illness touches so many lives. As a catalyst for continuing that dialogue, The Valley is a winner. It may take its time, but the payoff is worth the journey.

The Valley by Joan MacLeod. Directed by Mindy Parfitt. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Granville Island Stage (1585 Johnston St, Vancouver) until May 7. Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.