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theatre review

Susan Coyne and Colin Mercer in The Valley at Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann

What does police work involve in 21st-century Canada? Dan, a Vancouver cop played by Ian Lake in Joan MacLeod's new drama The Valley, explains what he has to deal with daily on the job like this: "It's all crazy people fighting crazy people."

One afternoon at rush hour, Dan is called to a SkyTrain station to deal with yet another such "crazy" person. A recent university dropout having his first psychotic episode, his name is Connor (Colin Mercer) and he's babbling incoherently and swinging a baton. During his arrest, Connor's jaw is broken – leading his mother Sharon (Susan Coyne) to file a complaint against the police force, another aspect of modern police work that Dan simply has to shrug off.

"The mother thinks that the press is a courtroom," Dan complains to his wife Janie (Michelle Monteith), a recovering addict who is struggling with her own mental-health issues after giving birth.

Psychotic episodes, accusations of excessive force, depression, drug addiction – all the hot-button topics in The Valley can make it seem like a movie of the week.

But, despite the play's relentless topicality, MacLeod is equally interested in character here – and none is more compelling than Dan, a guy with a tough exterior who's equally obsessed with the way his son's feet are developing. ("I thought a baby would be boring because other babies are boring," he says sheepishly, in one of his charming asides to the audience.)

Here's the contemporary conundrum faced by police that his character clarifies: In order to make it through a day on the beat without losing it, Dan has to keep his emotions compartmentalized and, to a certain extent, view the troubled people he meets on the street each day as abstracted "crazy people." At the same time, however, the media and public today press him and his colleagues to demonstrate a level of empathy and compassion that would ultimately make them unable to do that. It's an untenable position: You can't really be a social worker with a gun.

MacLeod's play premiered last winter at the soon-to-be-deceased Enbridge playRites Festival in Calgary. On a second viewing, my sympathies once again swung from character to character – from the policeman Dan to the terrified but heroically unrelenting, middle-class mom played here to perfection by Susan Coyne in a mom bob; then to the gifted teenager struggling with mental illness who is disgusted with everyone, himself most of all; then to the stay-at-home mom who can't wait for her husband to get home, but then can't stop herself from unloading on him.

There's a lot of empathy in the writing and between the characters – at times, too much. Brief spikes of conflict are quickly smothered with compassion. Indeed, as the play progresses well past what would normally be its climax, Sharon sends a card inviting Dan and his wife to what she calls a "healing circle." Dan shrugs it off – he has been witness to dozens of other traumatic incidents at this point – but Janie, increasingly in need of restoring, is intrigued by the idea of restorative justice.

Indeed, The Valley's structure turns out to be more inspired by aboriginal approaches to conflict than Aristotelian ones. Director Richard Rose tries to echo that in the staging. He places the audience around the action, and there's a circle in the centre of it all that characters approach to tell their side of the story in monologue. Eventually, characters from the two families cross into each other's spaces and through the doors on the opposite side of the stage.

Rose tries some other ideas, too. He begins with a casual, hyper-lit staging where audience and actors overlap, before succumbing to the urge to fill the theatre with rumbling sound and ominous light to help create tension. During the entire intermission, he makes Mercer sit on the stage in a prison of light, a sadistic directorial decision, really, with little aesthetic payoff. It's indecisive direction, but, at the same time, it underlines the question that underpins the whole play: What would you do?

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