Daniel Doheny and Kerry Sandomirsky in The Valley, which tackles the subject of depression. (photo by Emily Cooper)
As The Valley opens, a young man addresses the audience with the words, “Encounters with the police No. 1.”
It’s a stark opening, as the character – Connor – stands in a spotlight on a circular stage, with the three other actors behind him in the shadows. The monologue represents both the beginning and end to the play. It establishes a sense of the past – about what brought the characters to their current situation – as well as the present, when they are revealing themselves in a healing circle. Each of the players eventually gets to speak directly to the audience in turn, and the drama of the performance unfolds between the monologues.
Essentially, the play is about the effect of depression in two different families – a police officer (Dan) and his wife (Janie), who has just given birth and has a history of depression; and a mother (Sharon) and son (Connor), who has an episode when he’s 18. Amazingly, all the action takes place within the circular stage – a relevant choice for the performance.
“The show is a very intimate show, though the Granville Island stage is not considered intimate,” set designer Amir Ofek explained. “We wanted it ‘in your face,’ not hiding behind a proscenium arch.”
When faced with the decision of whether to use a more literal interpretation of the play for the set design, Ofek said he wanted to avoid switching between the staging of homes of each family, the police station, the Skytrain and other locations in order to keep the intensity going.
“As a designer, I have to delve into the play to find a unique way of doing things,” he said, adding that he tried in the design to convey the protagonists’ characteristics of intensity and fragility by having part of the set jut out of the stage, as though it might fall on the audience any minute.
“There’s a sense of brutality in the play, as well,” Ofek said. “It’s reflected in the edginess of the material of the set.”
Intense, brutal and fragile are perfect words to describe the characters. When Connor quits university after wanting to go for so long, his mother Sharon is at a loss. She tries so hard to change his mind – pleading, cajoling, trying logic and guilt. She is helpless against an illness that has yet to even reveal itself. When an “incident at Joyce Station” takes place, her lament to the audience is heartwrenching: “What to expect at 18 years, three months – your child will break in two.”
In the other household, Dan struggles to be supportive of his wife when she is having depressive episodes, but he has his own demons to bear from being a police officer.
“Every holiday you’ve ever looked forward to – they’re all on our s–t list,” he says, referring to the increase in crime and misdemeanors around holiday time. “Hookers, jumpers, pushers, junkies, racers, strippers – hundreds of things you don’t want to hear about.”
Ironically, it was through his work that Dan met his wife, helping get her clean and off the street. Their struggle is particularly disquieting to watch as it’s so clear how much they love each other, but seem to be always living on the edge of a breakdown.
When Dan arrests Connor in the “incident at Joyce Station,” there’s a struggle that sends Connor to the hospital and results in months of being housebound in his depression, unable or unwilling to listen to his mother, who is constantly on him to do something.
Eventually, Dan and Janie get an invitation to a healing circle to help Connor deal with the aftermath of the incident. But, like his refusal to pay attention to his wife’s bouts of depression, Dan refuses to hear anything about a healing circle. Janie goes on her own and is able to connect with Connor because she shares his ailment and understands what he’s going through. Through Janie, Sharon finds out something that allows her to let go of her own anger.
This play is not easy to watch but it’s an important one to see, if only to get a bit more understanding of how people suffer with despair and hopelessness – sometimes for months or years at a time. It’s estimated that 10% of adults in Canada will experience a serious depressive episode in their lifetimes.
The Valley stars Daniel Doheny as Connor, Kerry Sandomirsky as Sharon, Pippa Mackie as Janie and Robert Salvador as Dan. It’s directed by Mindy Parfitt, with lighting by Itai Erdal, and runs at the Arts Club (artsclub.com) Granville Island stage until May 7.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer and media trainer in Vancouver. Her consulting work can be seen at phase2coaching.com.