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Salt-Water Moon

Review by Ivy Wigmore

A soft summer night; a full moon; a boy and a girl. In David French’s Salt-Water Moon, the essential elements are all in place from the start—and set against the backdrop of a tragic accident. The wake for the victim brings gives estranged couple Mary Snow and Jacob Mercer a rare opportunity to spend the evening together. So there you have it: sex and death, the directive to gather rosebuds while we may.

The play moves right along with actors Mary Ashton and Brendon Murray holding the stage admirably. The story in a nutshell: Jacob left, a year ago, too distraught to say goodbye to Mary. She was devastated but eventually took up with a schoolmaster, son of a merchant who had mistreated and humiliated Jacob’s father. On this evening in August, Jacob has returned and stops in to see Mary at the house where she is in service to a local dignitary.

The language, the history and the Newfoundland humor all ring true throughout the play, despite the fact that French’s family moved from Coley’s Point (where the play is also set) to Toronto when David was a small child. However, although his parents took the boy out of Newfoundland, it seems that Newfoundland was nevertheless nurtured within the boy: “I absorbed (the language) through some process of osmosis. Through my family. When I was growing up it was like Grand Central Station in my house—Newfoundlanders coming through all the time, sitting around, smoking cigarettes and telling stories.” (from an interview in the Halifax Herald, Nov. 2, 1999)

French’s depictions of historical events have not a whiff of dust to them. Jacob describes the slaughter of Newfoundland soldiers who signed on for the dollar a day offered them because it was more than they could make fishing. When he talks about the way those soldiers marched unflinchingly into certain death, Jacob is so passionate the audience experiences what it would be like to know men who died in that battle, women left widowed from it and children left fatherless. In “Requiem for a Nun,” William Faulkner wrote that ‘The past is never dead; it's not even past.’ In this play, history seems not only alive but clothed in flesh and blood. We learn about poverty and desperation, the hard bargains struck by those with few options.

When at last Mary relents and the inevitable happy ending is in sight, it’s not indicated by any flowery declarations of love. No, in keeping with the spirit of the play and the characters, Mary’s surrender takes the form of a stern and humorous admonition: Jacob is made to understand that if he ever brings up the name of a (probably fictional) girl in Toronto again, he’ll wish he hadn’t.

Salt-Water Moon is one of a series of five semi-autobiographical plays about the Mercer family. In subsequent plays in the series, such as Leaving Home, we see Jacob and Mary later in life. Hmmm… I wonder where that’s playing?

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