On Thursday night, I saw Salt-Water Moon at Factory Theatre. On Friday morning, I woke up and the first thing I did was buy tickets to go see it again.
I can’t wait to be transported back to that warm August night in Newfoundland and to fall in love all over again – with David French’s 1984 play, with Ravi Jain’s sensuous, stripped-down production of it, and with love itself.
This dreamlike, minimalistic revival of the Canadian classic deserves to sit up there with other recent raved-about re-imaginings of American ones – like John Tiffany’s takes on Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, or Ivo van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
Jain allows audiences to see French’s most popular play again for the first time: Take away the Newfoundland kitsch, the period costumes, the accents and the fiddle music and what you’re left with is a bare, beating heart of a play.
Salt-Water Moon is set in 1926 in front of a 19th-century house in Coley’s Point, Newfoundland. But you only know that here because a female singer with a guitar (Ania Soul), sitting stage right, reads out French’s stage directions from a script on her music stand. “There is not much of a yard, because they built their houses close to the sea in those days to make easy access to the waters where they made their living,” she says, bringing French’s pride in his heritage, his schoolmaster-ish spirit, onto the stage immediately (and helping us forgive it when it crops up in the dialogue later).
While Soul strums her guitar, Mary Snow (Mayko Nguyen) is not seen as described – sitting on the front porch, in a short-sleeved yellow satin dress, peering at the stars through a telescope. Instead, she moves around a bare, fog-filled stage in dark clothing, kneeling next to clusters of candles, lighting them with long matches plunked from a cylindrical canister.
Mary is setting the stage aflame for the return of her old flame Jacob Mercer (Kawa Ada); she’s turning it into the constellations that they usually peer up at. The Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
In two beautifully understated performances that make you lean in and use your imagination, Nguyen and Ada sparkle among these celestial bodies as Mary and Jacob fight and reunite – teenage lovers brought back together after a year apart.
Jacob had run off to Toronto, ashamed by his father’s humiliation at the hands of his boss; Mary, heartbroken, has become engaged to a schoolteacher who also happens to be the son of that boss in the meantime. The real impediments to Jacob and Mary’s getting back together, however, are pride (his, primarily) and love (hers, for her sister).
Ada nails Jacob’s bravado and charisma, while Nguyen projects both Mary’s vulnerability and her strength throughout . There are a couple of moments between them more achingly honest than I have seen on a Toronto stage in a long time.
The casting of Salt-Water Moon here is, indeed, different from other recent revivals of the show at the National Arts Centre or Soulpepper. It is, in a word, colour-blind – though, in truth, that doesn’t register as notable in a production released from the false shackles of naturalism and where all others signifiers of time and place have been taken away too. Nguyen and Ada – employing “standard” Canadian accents instead of Newfoundland ones – simply push the play closer to today and Toronto audiences than further away from its source.
But while Jain doesn’t exactly underline the casting, it might help you see the play for what it really is. French, who died in 2010 at age 71, immigrated to Canada from Newfoundland with his family as a boy when the two were still separate countries. His Mercer plays were the first to really explore the tension between new Canadians and their children – an enduringly popular theme still found in playwrights as varied as Anita Majumdar and Ins Choi.
Jain has written his own show on that theme – A Brimful of Asha – in which his actual mother joined him on stage to make the case for an arranged marriage in India. His production of David French here – which has a couple of small, but lovely, theatrical tricks up its sleeve – shares that play’s heartwarming, generous spirit and desire to bridge the generation gap.
Critics have derided Salt-Water Moon too often as too sentimental, but I think it actually a daring and original act for a serious dramatist to tell a love story. French’s plays are full of love – this one unleashes it and doesn’t try to disguise it the way his earlier Mercer dramas Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately do. The craft of French’s writing is in full evidence, too – this being one of the rare plays where adhering to the classical unities does not feel forced.
Just because Salt-Water Moon is the most revived of French’s Mercer plays does not mean it is not the best of them. Jain’s production with its two exquisite performances cements it as a classic that is as much about Canada today as it is about Newfoundland of yesteryear.
Salt-Water Moon runs until March 13 (factorytheatre.ca).Report Typo/Error