"Saltwater Moon" as lyric oratorio

Newfie classic gains universalism in abstract remake @ Gateway

Star-crossed lovers tune in to music of the spheres. Photo: Joseph Michael

Settling into the red plus luxury of Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, we had the eerie feeling that we were the only ones in the house who didn’t know Saltwater Moon by heart. Everyone else in the mostly middle-aged, mostly female audience seemed able to lip-synch along with the dialogue.

Director Ravi Jain’s program note suggests why. In its 34 year history, David French’s poetic pas de deux script has firmly entrenched itself as “one of the most popular love stories” in the CanLit canon, a much-revived repertory “rite of passage” staple for amateur and professional troupes alike. As new-fledged Canadians, my wife Meilang and I were uniquely uninoculated with French’s Saltwater serum.

But, impervious as we were to the play’s CanLit cachet, we were wide open to its more universalistic ChickLit allure. The story incarnates a foundational female trope: the prodigal First Love who strays afar, only to “come home,” repentant, just in time to rescue our spirited ingénue heroine from a joyless marriage-of-convenience.

This we could relate to, each in our own way, Meilang as a wistful what-might-have-been reverie and I as the squinty little booby prize who would have been ditched at the altar in such a scenario. And it was this universalistic dimension that director Jain stressed in his stripped-down, almost abstract staging.

Not for him, the regional bric-a-brac of post-World War I Newfoundland that usually festoons Saltwater Moon revivals. No front porch swing, no yellow dress, no lonely highway. For that matter, no Newfoundland brogue, peaches-and-cream complected colleen or braggadocious boyo.

Rather, Jain has cast an Afghan-Canadian actor, Kawa Ada, as the homecoming swain and a Vietnamese Canadian, Mayko Nguyen, as the girl he left behind. A bluesy Afro-Canadian acoustic guitarist, Ania Soul, provides understated onstage musical accompaniment.

She also, crucially, recites aloud from French’s eloquent, richly descriptive and discursive – almost Shavian – stage directions. This lends the whole Factory Theatre production more the feel of an oratorio or a dramatic reading than a conventional narrative play.

So Jain can dispense with prosaic sets and props in favour of an onstage matrix of votive candles that the two actors light – achingly slowly, at times – with tapers. The glowing labyrinth was tastefully enhanced by the subtle embellishments of lighting designer Kaileigh Krystofiak.

Do these points of light figure stars and constellations, much alluded to in the dialogue? Or shared recollections? Or flashpoints in protagonists’ frayed rapport? Or future hopes? See what you will in them.

Apparently the script is a kind of romantic prequel to a trilogy of French plays that detail the far more equivocal travails of these characters’ later life as emigrants to Canada (which had not yet incorporated Newfoundland as of 1926).

Such details might be familiar to viewers well-versed in CanLit. So might the background of family and regional history in the heavily expository dialogue. But for novices like us, some bits were hard to catch in such an abstract staging.

Still, the performances were taut and dignified, spirited and even funny at times. Well worth a trip to Richmond. For audiences steeped in Saltwater Moon, this production presents a fresh take on a beloved old script. And even for those who’ve never heard of the play before, Jain offers a hauntingly familiar take on an old, sweet song.        

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