By David French. Directed by Ravi Jain. A Factory Theatre production, touring with Why Not Theatre. At the Gateway Theatre on Saturday, February 17. Continues until February 24
Three minutes before Salt-Water Moon actually begins, the houselights go down and Ania Soul begins to strum and sing a gorgeous, warm song. Mayko Nguyen moves slowly across the floor of the stage, methodically lighting candles. After the end of the song, the audience moves a little, restless. “Lighting the candles will take up the whole 90 minutes,” the woman behind me says in a failed whisper. Luckily, she’s wrong.
In all, Soul sings three full songs in the time it takes to light the candles, and by then, the quiet ritual has transformed the room, perfectly setting the stage for the delicate intimacy of director Ravi Jain’s production of Salt-Water Moon. Jain’s confident staging of David French’s 1985 play earned him a 2016 Dora Award for direction, and this remount at the Gateway Theatre casts a beautiful spell.
Soul sings, “I’m not sorry, I’m not anything/I’m just trying to find my way back to you,” and she remains on-stage throughout the play, narrating stage directions and occasionally playing music. It’s August 1926 in Newfoundland, and the night is warm. The narrator tells us that Mary (Nguyen) is 17, and wearing a yellow dress—in reality, Nguyen is barefoot and wearing jeans and a top—in the front yard of a house when she hears someone singing. It’s Jacob (Kawa Ada), whom Mary hasn’t seen in a year. He left without saying goodbye, and the two spar and flirt and fill in the blanks of the last 12 months, Jacob trying to convince Mary that she should take him back, Mary still furious and desperately hurt.
There are complications and class issues, and a world of things standing in their way, such as Mary’s engagement to another man, but we’re rooting for the estranged couple almost immediately. The audience’s investment is thanks in part to the magic in French’s writing. Mary and Jacob’s character skeletons are gendered tropes—she’s angry and tightly wound, he’s a charming, arrogant scamp—and feel vividly real. But of equal importance are the actors. Nguyen’s Mary is fierce and fiery, and Ada’s Jacob is bright and winning, and both actors infuse their performances with an aching vulnerability. They also have incredible chemistry together and bring a shimmer and shine all their own to the already luminous Salt-Water Moon.