One sees certain plays repeatedly in the reviewing racket, especially classics, and the best of these hold up well. It’s partly a matter of pure, enduring entertainment value, but some scripts also reward repeat customers with subtlety, nuance and layers that let you discover or rediscover things about a story over time, especially as staged by a shifting array of skilled interpreters.
Justly regarded as a Canadian theatre classic, David French’s playfully melancholy 1985 romance Salt-Water Moon has been mounted on PEI repeatedly (such as Melissa Mullen’s fine 2016 Kings Playhouse production), and its latest Island incarnation is a well-crafted summer run at The Guild starring Helen Killorn and Justin Shaw. Both are accomplished young PEI actors who moved to Alberta, back for the summer with this project supported by Theatre Engaging Communities (TEC) funding.
Like the Killorn-Shaw duo themselves, Salt-Water Moon echoes the age-old story of young Atlantic Canadians heading west. Set in 1926, the play depicts a moonlit night in tiny Newfoundland outport Coley’s Point, where young Jacob Mercer (Shaw) moves back home from Toronto hoping to win back his ex-sweetheart Mary Snow (Killorn), who is newly engaged to affluent Jerome McKenzie. Stargazing, reminiscing and verbal sparring ensue as Jacob pitches woo and Mary repeatedly bats it away. It’s a fun game to watch, but with emotional stakes that make you care about the outcome.
Part of what makes Salt-Water Moon work in repeat viewings is the conflicting impulses and motivations of its characters throughout – love or passion informs much of the Jacob-Mary interaction, but there’s also resentment, fear, uncertainty, bitterness, partly stemming from the couple’s rocky romantic history, and partly from complicating factors like Mary’s poverty and family tragedies, Jacob’s fierce resentment of the wealthy McKenzies, and the World War I traumas that scarred the Mercer and Snow clans.
With all this bubbling away inside the pair as text or subtext or both, you’ve got two characters not only in conflict with each other but with themselves, and able actors can make that fascinating to watch: with or without words, you can see Killorn’s Mary torn between her obvious attraction to Jacob, her resentment of how he abandoned her, and her anxiety over possibly forsaking the security that marrying Jerome represents. Similarly, Shaw’s Jacob lets us see and hear and feel the corrosive sourness of Jacob’s grudge against the McKenzies, even when he’s trying to hide it from Mary.
Outdoor/old-timey standing set elements from The Guild’s Anne & Gilbert show credibly double as Coley’s Point here, with the addition of a makeshift porch, its chair and a little set dressing. Well-chosen costumes, props and capable lighting help, too, though the main attractions are French’s smart, funny, heartfelt script and the charming, genuine performances from Killorn & Shaw (though the former’s Newfoundland accent is a bit more consistently strong than the latter’s).
It’s a show that’ll make you laugh, make you think and make you feel for its characters, so duck out of the summer sunshine this Sunday and bask in the cool, dreamy glow of Salt-Water Moon.