Mar 15

The Valley lacks spark and emotional punch

by Jenna Shummoogum · 0 comments

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The Enbridge playRites festival kicked off with Joan MacLeod’s The Valley,  a play that has a narrative that deals with safety and protection and perception of the people who enforce the law.

The play traces the lives of two families and their perception  of and interaction with the police over years. One family consists of Sharon (Esther Purves-Smith) and her son Connor (Zachary Dugan) – his struggles with University life and coping with mental illness and her struggle to support him through it. At first he is excited to go to University, but shortly after, he drops out and retreats to his mom’s house. The other family is Dan (Kyle Jespersen), a cop who is working to keep things together at work and at home, while his wife Janie (Erin MacKinnon) is taking care of their baby son. An incident on the skytrain between Connor and Dan that turns violent (in which Dan breaks Connor’s jaw) links both families together.

The play opens with monologues from all four characters, about their first encounter with police. Connor speaks of parties and encounters with the cops on the beach, while he was fooling around with his date. Dan speaks about being a young boy in grade school and having a cop come in to talk about traffic safety. Sharon tells a funny story about switching the price tags at a store and being escorted home by the police. Janie speaks about her mother calling the cops because she and her sister broke a window and no one knew how to fix it. All of these monologues are light but have instances of darkness, where they refer to a victim’s impact statement, or ‘the mother’ and how she’s wrong. It’s a sprinkling of tension in the narrative and it leads up to the incident in the skytrain.

But then the tension fades out. It’s all because McLeod isn’t sure what she wants her narrative to focus on. Both families are struggling with mental illness and that is ever-present throughout the play, but the violent incident on the train doesn’t lead to anything. Members of both families collide briefly over the situation, with Sharon telling Janie that she hopes that her son never has to have his jaw broken. But the excessive use of force by the police officer, in this case Dan, is never investigated. That incident gets dropped and the narrative focuses on depression that Connor and Janie are suffering from respectively.

Purves-Smith, as Sharon, carries some scenes and draws the audience in. She does a great job of depicting Sharon’s concern and grief for her son and her frustration at not being able to help him. The scene where she finally manages to hear what he is saying, without interrupting him or trying to personally take on his feelings – is a breakthrough and is touching in relation to the bland scenes that precede it. Dugan does a decent job as Connor, but the scene where the audience is supposed to believe that he is crying is weak. Jespersen clearly did not connect with his character on paper and that’s probably because Dan isn’t fleshed out. Dan is flat and lacks depth and character motivation. MacKinnon demonstrates her ability to stir emotion in a particularly poignant scene towards the end of the play, but otherwise she isn’t given much to work with. There is also a serious lack of chemistry between Dan and Janie, their interaction often disconnecting, leaving the audience disconnected from their storyline.

Scott Reid’s projection design is simple and remains still, projected on panels as a backdrop. The projections often match the mood of the scene playing out on stage.

The Valley has some moments of great writing from MacLeod. But overall it lacks spark and emotional punch. There is tension in certain scenes, but it doesn’t develop into a climax. There are several themes that are explored but the narrative could delve so much deeper into the issues it just brushes upon.

The Valley is part of Alberta Theatre Projects Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays. Tickets and more information is available online.

Photo Credit: Trudie Lee Photography.

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