Better late than never: Salt Water Moon

March 15, 2016

I only got to see Salt Water Moon at the Factory Theatre on the last weekend of the run. This makes me late to the party in rhapsodizing about it; still, better late than never.

It was nothing short of exquisite. This stripped-down version of David French’s 1984 play (under the direction of Ravi Jain) was part of the Factory’s Canadian Classics Re-Imagined season. With no props, no costumes, nothing on stage but a series of candles placed in the pattern of the firmament, a young couple, Jacob (played by Kawa Ada) and Mary (Mayko Nguyen) grapple with tough decisions about their future. Ania Soul enfolds the action in guitar music and singing, as well as reading stage directions.

Salt Water Moon is a story utterly particular to its time and place. The setting is Newfoundland, 1926, with the slaughter of World War One still fresh in memory, and tough economic realities rendering the couple’s future precarious. Mary experiences any young lover’s trepidations, jealousies and disappointments, but when it comes to choosing a mate, her stakes are astronomically high. Jacob is endearingly cocky, but his bluster comes off as bravery, knowing the rigid class system that he will confront in providing for a family. Their conversation evokes a close-knit – at times claustrophobic – community, the thousand details of daily life from pipes to stockings to cars, to sinister revelations of the fate of children whose parents cannot care for them.

Stripped of all visible signs of context, the production constantly acknowledged the original script, reminding us that we were one step removed from it. Not only was there no set; the stage directions did not correspond to what was going on. Costumes were described, which were different from what the actors wore, props were mentioned in the stage directions, their use only mimed on stage. The characters walked among candles meant to represent stars; Jacob laid his head on the ground to indicate listening at a door. Most spectacularly: the final stage directions have Mary howling out her pain while Nguyen stood poised in silent grief.

Why and how did this work? I don’t want to analyze it; all I know is that it was spellbinding. I felt as if I were having a miraculously enhanced experience of reading, in which I could conjure the scenes for myself, with a powerful and intimate performance playing out at one and the same time.

Salt Water Moon is all about trusting the imagination. This simple and elegant production did not so much seek universality as celebrate the power of the imagination to evoke the invisible and confront the unknown.

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