Saturday, November 16, 2013


Pictured: Ian Lake,
Colin Mercer

Special to TorSun
16 NOV 2013
R: 4.5/5

If it's simple answers to complex social questions you seek, you're more likely to find them, one suspects, in a church rather than in a theatre. After all, sermons most often wrap things up in nice simple packages, setting out answers most often painted in stark shades of black and white.
Theatre is a little messier, at least when its firing on all cylinders, serving up issues wrapped in sloppy, barely contained packages, coloured in the full spectrum of human experience. In the face of complicated moral issues,  it doesn't eschew answers in favour of helping us frame the questions we still need to ask. By those lights, Joan MacLeod's THE VALLEY, currently playing in its Toronto première on the stage of the Tarragon Theatre, is pretty fine theatre.

The subject is nothing if not totally contemporary — hardly surprising really, when one considers that MacLeod has often been amongst the first playwrights to tackle complex social issues like teen bullying and the like. On the increasingly mean streets of modern-day Vancouver, the lives of a hard-working police constable (played by Ian Lake) and a mentally tortured young man (Colin Mercer) intersect, with tragic, although not fatal, results. In the ensuing public firestorm, the young man's mother — Susan Coyne plays a proud, loving woman with a highly defined middle class sense of right and wrong — is highly critical of the officer's behaviour, although she has no idea of what really happened. She believes justice should be meted out with equal doses of compassion by those who serve on the front lines.

And while the police officer deals with her charges and accusations with equanimity, weighing them against a reality that embraces everything from murderous pig farmers to rioting hockey fans, the ensuing tension spills over into his home life, where his troubled young wife (Michelle Monteith) struggles to deal with a new baby, and a case of postpartum depression spinning increasingly out of control.

It all unfolds on a single sprawling set that serves not only as home to mother and son, husband and wife, but as a range of other locations as well, simply and effectively designed and lit by Graeme S. Thomson. Working in the round, director Richard Rose puts his trust in a finely honed script, a top-notch cast and an intelligent audience to sort things out — all to positive effect. Coyne and Lake give particularly well-drawn, solidly anchored performances, opening windows into the souls of good people who are not always right, while Mercer and Monteith offer less accessible turns reflective of our inability to connect with those touched by mental illness.

And while, on the surface, THE VALLEY would seem to be a dissertation on the shifting demands of modern day policing in a world where the social safety net is increasingly frayed — and a pretty effective one at that — it is, in the end, like so many fine works of art, also a compelling argument for empathy and understanding, offering an ending that leaves us with few answers, but a firmer knowledge of the questions that must be asked.

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