Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region.  

The National Arts Centre’s revival of David French’s Salt Water Moon certainly offers a display of “acting” — but too often it is acting at its most self-conscious and studied.

That flushes away spontaneity and wreaks havoc with the emotional truth which should drive this play.

Set in a Newfoundland outport in 1926, Salt Water Moon was French’s enchanting prequel to Leaving Home and Of The Fields, Lately — the two plays he had earlier written about the troubled fortunes and shattered dreams of an expatriate Newfoundland family, the Mercers, in contemporary Toronto.

It’s easy, especially if you’re familiar with the other plays, to find a rueful tinge in this most lyrical of French’s works, After all, as a youthful and self-possessed Jacob Mercer reappears in the life of Mary Snow, the girl he abandoned a year previously, and resumes his courtship of her on this star-lit night, delicate dynamics are rippling beneath the surface. Or at least, they should be.

The play is a mood piece, a tone poem but it’s also fuelled by an old-fashioned naturalism There are moments when the production does serve these needs. Jock Munro’s atmospheric lighting design is memorable. And Max-Otto Fauteux has delivered a simple but evocative set — an asphalt track, a telescope silhouetted against a darkening sky — which testifies to the vastness, not just of the universe, but of the human experience.

But ultimately this is the most intimate of plays, about two young people struggling to find each other again. It’s a play which reaches into an immediate past of shared memories and perceptions which can sometimes be suspect. But sadly, the nuances of Salt Water Moon are not well served when the performances lack an inner life.

Jamie Mac (Jacob) and Holly Gauthier-Frankel are obviously talented young actors, but they or their director have made some wrong choices here. Gauthier-Frankel’s emotional gamut tends to run from feisty to feisty. As for Jamie Mac, he does captures Jacob’s jauntiness and self-absorption, but that’s scarcely enough: a believable characterization requires more than striking postures and making pronouncements to the audience.

Salt Water Moon began life in an alternate Toronto Theatre far more intimate than the NAC Theatre. One suspects that in Ottawa it would have worked better in the NAC’s smaller Studio which at least might have encouraged director Micheline Chevrier think about the play differently.

This is rarely a production where you can really believe that these two characters are having an intimate conversation. The NAC Theatre has a wide proscenium arch  and Chevrier has staged the play in such a way that her two performers are frequently half its length or more away from each other. So they don’t really talk — instead they resort  to shouting. Perhaps, a metaphorical statement is being attempted here about the vast emotional distances which can complicate personal relationships. If so, the device doesn’t work, The direction of the play strikes too many false notes. Indeed, there are sequences where you are silently pleading that the characters at least look at each other instead of simply declaiming to the audience.

Ottawa  Jamie Portman, Otober 25, 2011