Playing the role of a mother in the Belfry Theatre’s new play didn’t take much preparation for Colleen Wheeler.
Being a mother herself, Wheeler instinctively felt a lot of the things that are important to the character of Sharon. But what she couldn’t prepare for was dealing with a son who’s developed a mental illness.
“It’s horrifying for any parent to find out their child has something they can’t fix,” said Wheeler.
Written by Victoria’s Joan MacLeod, The Valley tells the story of a dramatic police encounter at a Vancouver SkyTrain station that binds four people together — Connor, an aspiring novelist who’s just dropped out of university, his mother Sharon, who is dealing with his erratic behaviour, Dan, a new father and Vancouver police officer, and his wife Janie, who is struggling with the demands of motherhood.
Marking its 40th anniversary this year, former Belfry artistic director Roy Surette was asked to come back to Victoria from Montreal to direct The Valley. Surette jumped at the chance to come back for three-and-a-half weeks to work on a play he describes as wonderful, challenging and timely given the recent verdict of Toronto police officer James Forcillo, who was found guilty of attempted murder in the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim.
In 2013, Yatim consumed ecstasy then later boarded a street car, where videos show him exposing himself and pulling out a small knife, causing panicked passengers to pour outside at the next stop.
When Forcillo ordered the teen to drop the knife, he refused and swore at police. Yatim was eventually shot eight times by the officer during an encounter that lasted about 50 seconds.
In the play, Surette noted Connor undergoes a similar experience. The young man has always done well in school and is leaving for university for the first time when he has a major psychotic episode on the train. His interaction with the police leads to an extreme injury, sparking his mother to go on a bit of a rampage about the way police treat people.
“It winds up being a really interesting investigation of the relationship between the police and mental health…It’s quite dramatic. It’s pretty raw in some ways, but it’s also pretty beautiful,” said Surette, who’s a big fan of MacLeod. “Joan MacLeod is a very compassionate and empathetic writer with a great sense of humour that weaves its way throughout her story as well.”
Translated into eight languages, MacLeod’s (who teaches at the University of Victoria) work has been produced around the world and in 2011 she won the Siminovitch Prize for Theatre.
One of the last plays Surette directed before he left Victoria in 2007 was MacLeod’s play, Home Child. He believes The Valley will get a lot of people talking.
“I think Joan is really great at her empathy for all sides of the story,” said Surette. “You realize that sometimes we’re pretty quick to make judgements on both the law enforcers as well as our attitudes towards mental health issues.”
The Valley runs from Feb. 2 to 28. Tickets range from $28 to $48 and are available at 250-385-6815 or online at tickets.belfry.bc.ca.