(This was Jerry's review of the production from last year.)
When Salt-Water Moon was first produced in 1984 and started making the rounds of Canadian regional theatres the next year, those of us who had experienced the explosion of Canadian theatre in the 1970s were excited. David French was one of the heroes of that story. His Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately had helped spark the explosion. Semi-autobiographical, the two plays told the story of a Toronto family. The mother and father had emigrated from Newfoundland in the 1940s, and their hearts (and accents) were still very much of the Rock. Their two sons were assimilated Central Canadians. The themes of generation gap and youth rebellion caught the zeitgeist of the early ‘70s. And the plays absolutely nailed the Canadian cultural nationalism of the era. They were Canadian family stories, told with great humour and sentimentality. It was a classic Canadian immigration saga, but the immigrants were from another part of Canada itself, one that had an exoticism and charm that theatricalised the naturalism of French’s style and intensified the sense of their being Canadian stories. So when Salt-Water Moon appeared, the third play in what was now a trilogy (and would go on to become a five-play saga), it was a major event.
The first two plays had focused on the relationships between the elder son (French’s surrogate) and the father and mother, Jacob and Mary Mercer, in the mid-1950s. Salt-Water Moon is a prequel, a two-hander set back to Newfoundland in 1926 when Jacob Mercer wooed Mary Snow. In the first two plays Jacob is a larger-than-life character who mythicizes Newfoundland and his youth there. It was exciting for the fans of Leaving Home and Of the Fields, Lately to see what Jacob and Newfoundland were “really” like back then.
I wondered, coming into this Hoarse Raven production, how the play would stand up outside the context of the Mercer family saga. Very few in today’s audience would know those earlier plays or their characters. How would Salt-Water Moon do as a stand-alone?
No problem. It remains a delightful play, mobilizing the social and military history of Canada and Newfoundland in aid of a humourous, passionate, lyrical love story. The two characters are beautifully drawn by French and played with energetic sympathy by Abby Renee Creek and Joel Grinke in Michael Fera’s straightforward, intelligent production.
We’re in the village of Coley’s Point on a moonlit, starlit night, outside the home where 17-year-old Mary Snow has been in service to a wealthy family since her father was killed, along with most of the Newfoundland regiment, at Beaumont Hamel in the first battle of the Somme in 1916. That event, burnt into the cultural memory of Newfoundlanders, weighs heavily in the background of the love story. Jacob Mercer has returned this night, suitcase in hand, from a year in Toronto. He and Mary had been sweethearts until Jacob suddenly left, for reasons that slowly unfold during the play. Meanwhile, Mary has become engaged to Jerome McKenzie, son of the town’s richest merchant—whose offstage presence also looms large—and Jacob has returned to try to win her back.
Jacob has the Newfoundlander’s gift of gab, and he tries to win Mary through sheer force of words, backed by his charm, wit, passion and persistence. Mary is a tough sell. She’s angry at him for having deserted her; and she’s not easily going to give up the prospect of a life of financial privilege with Jerome after her own awful experience of growing up poor in a kind of bondage. She also has a younger sister in a Dickensian Home in St John’s who would be liberated by her marriage to the rich guy. But she clearly favours poor Jacob over rich Jerome and practically dares him to convince her to break her engagement.
One of Jacob’s weapons, generating some of the play’s most eloquent, angry passages, is the story of his father’s humiliation by Jerome’s father—a kind of feudal Newfoundland lord—who didn’t fight in the War, unlike Jacob’s father and Mary’s. Jacob is also terrifically funny and clever, and hugely self-dramatizing (a primary quality of the older Jacob we meet in those first Mercer plays). His speeches, and Mary’s, with their lilting Newfoundland accents, account for much of the play’s lovely lyricism.
I really liked Creek’s Mary: strong and solid, a little naive, necessarily pragmatic but letting her heart battle it out with her head. Grinke nicely captures Jacob’s combination of attractive and slightly obnoxious aggressiveness. His lines were a little shaky on opening night, but Jacob has great swathes of dialogue. Grinke will no doubt tighten things up over the run.
Mimi Abraham’s set provides quite a few levels for the actors to walk up and down—steps, rocks—to provide visual variety in the blocking. But the sheer number of up-and-down moves has the actors frequently looking down at their feet to make sure they don’t trip. Fera might reduce some of those moves to eliminate that distraction.
If you never met Jacob and Mary before in one of French’s plays, this is a lovely opportunity for you to meet. If you’re one of us who know the Mercers, it’s a nice occasion to meet again.