In a prequel to his iconic family drama Leaving Home, David French gives us this poetic glimpse into the teenage courtship of Jacob Mercer and Mary Snow. Set in mid-1920s Newfoundland, Salt-Water Moon is a tender and nostalgic duet. Guild Festival Theatre continues their 10th anniversary season with a modest, deeply evocative production of this beloved Canadian classic.
When Jacob (Alex Furber) first sneaks up on the stargazing Mary (Sarah Gibbons), we can already sense the charged air between them. They have an intimate past, but have been estranged since Jacob left the island for Toronto. They fall quickly into a familiar teasing—mostly playful, though some spiteful barbs find their mark. As old wounds are re-opened, we discover the dark forces of family history, class division and authoritarian cruelty that have shaped their lives.
In Jacob’s absence, Mary has become engaged to local teacher, Jerome McKenzie. One of the central tensions of this reunion is Mary’s conflicting feelings about Jacob and Jerome. We never meet Jerome, but Jacob and Mary paint a vivid portrait of a kind, somewhat pretentious, ultimately bland suitor. Jerome also represents some painful family history for Jacob; his festering resentment adds to the fraught atmosphere surrounding Mary’s upcoming marriage.
Furber and Gibbons have a feisty, quarrelsome dynamic that is intensely persuasive. They hold the tensions of all that shared history in their bodies. You can feel their ties to each other and family—past and present. Even while it probes the harsh realities of a rustic Newfoundland life, the play maintains a lyrical tone and sense of whimsy.
Director Helen Juvonen and production designer Simon Flint have been very subtle and clever with some lights hung just over our characters’ heads. As the evening progresses, the glow of these strewn points of light become an echo of Jacob and Mary’s talk of stars—with three specifically coloured bulbs carrying special stellar significance.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum and often contains revealing traces of the artists’ involved. Sometimes these personal markers draw attention to themselves, but they can also be delicate and quietly resonant. Juvonen’s Director’s Notes are worth a read beforehand. Her intimate relationship to the play is never over-stated yet it enhances our appreciation of the colours and textures of her production.
The outdoor Greek theatre in the Guild Park & Gardens is always such a treat. The acoustics of the space add a natural, eerie quality to specifically offstage voices. When Jacob first makes his presence known, it is in song, casting his voice into our awareness. And When Mary calls out to Jacob near the end, the desperation is thoroughly haunting as the sound trails out into the open, dark night.
Unfolding in real time over 90 minutes, this sweet two-hander is both cheeky and poignant. With its clear-eyed yet hopeful look at grim circumstances and its unwavering sense of romance, Salt-Water Moon is a tonic for our bruised, pandemic-worn psyches.