Review: The Valley (Tarragon Theatre)

A complex story of parenting, mental illness and policing play out in The Valley at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre

There’s a painful moment in Tarragon Theatre‘s The Valley when time stops. “I don’t know how to feel better,” says one of the characters.

I won’t tell you which one (I’m not even sure I remember). The play features a cop, a teenager and two mothers.

It’s about the hot button issues we hear about in the media all the time – mental illness, parenting, policing. There’s a complex overlap between those of us hurting and those aiming to serve and protect (whether at home or on the streets). Pain is real to all of us. Let me start with the set. The Tarragon is fond of playing with the placement of the stage. For this play, the performance takes places on a stage between two banks of seating, with lighting to help identify what space we’re in. Two doors on either side of the stage bring us in and out of scenes, in downtown Vancouver.

For Toronto theatergoers the fact that the action is not local might be a bit of a blessing. We’ve had a lot of public intersection with the police of late – the G20 riots, Chief Blair’s shocking revelations, shootings of individuals with emotional health issues. We know the topic well.

But since the play’s not here, parallels can be left to the mind. (Although after the show, someone asked me via Twitter whether a certain police department should go see The Valley?) As it is, Joan MacLeod’s play repeatedly asks us to explore our relationships with the police.

Onstage, there’s Constable Dan (Ian Lake), father at home, and police “protector” in an incident gone wrong with depressed university student Connor (Colin Mercer). Susan Coyne swings between both of these men’s world’s – bearing the brunt of Connor’s depressive anxieties (“Stop sucking up all the air in the room,” Connor says to her. “I want you to stop breathing.”), and confronting the cop who she believes has done her son wrong.

The finest performance comes from Janie (Michelle Monteith), a young mother completely frazzled by the expectations of her new role, and the role – and fallout – of her husband as cop.

Handwritten notes in the foyer explore first intersections. A man recalls when he was four and returned by police to his foster parents. A young girl recounts what happened when she snuck out at night and didn’t tell her parents where she was going. I think my first encounter was when I was six. We had no phone at the cottage and an OPP car was sent out to tell us someone had died. MacLeod takes on mental health in a similar fashion.

We’ve all heard the stats that 20 percent of Canadians will personally experience some sort of mental health issue in their lifetime. This play reminds us that mental health is much like second-hand smoke: you don’t have to inhale yourself to be affected.

I left the theatre thinking that the characters – all excellently performed – were on to better things. My companion was more glass half-empty: you never know what comes next, he said.

The play hits you in the gut. It’s front-page news on stage, up close and personal.


– The Valley is playing at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue) from Nov 13 to Dec 15
– Tickets ($21-$53) can be purchased online or by calling the box office: 416-531-1827

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.