Ania Soul, Kawa Ada, and Makyko Nguyen in Salt-Water Moon. Photo by Joseph Michael.
Ania Soul, Kawa Ada, and Makyko Nguyen in Salt-Water Moon. Photo by Joseph Michael.

A Canadian theatre standard for more than two decades, the Factory Theatre production of Salt-Water Moon – running until February 24 at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre – strips away sets, costumes, and phony Newfoundland accents to revel in the pure poetry and tender sentiment that lie at the heart of David French’s script.

The story unfolds over a single, starry evening in 1926 in rural Coley’s Point. After disappearing without notice a year ago, Jacob Mercer shows up on the front porch of the home where his former sweetheart, Mary Snow, works as a servant. Wounded from his abrupt departure and now engaged to the local schoolmaster, Mary’s defenses are up as Jacob attempts to charm his way into forgiveness.

At its 2016 Toronto premiere, director Ravi Jain was hailed for his bold and brilliant re-envisioning of the frequently-performed piece. French’s script goes into exacting detail about what the front porch of the house and its yard should look like (in fact, he even describes what we should be able to infer about the home’s unseen interior, just by looking at the outside). In this production, the literal set is abandoned, with Jacob and Mary standing amidst a field of tea lights.

The play begins with Mary slowly walking around the stage, exactingly lighting each of the many small candles. Throughout the meditative, prolonged process, on-stage musician Ania Soul uses her silky voice to fill the space with dreamy, lovesick songs, skilfully accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. As the final candles are lit, Soul looks to the audience and declares: “Salt-Water Moon. By David French.”

Throughout the play, Soul provides musical underscoring and reads all of French’s elaborate stage directions. The result is the kind of magic that can only be conjured by theatre: with a handful of tea lights, the production demonstrates the power of imagination and shows how little skilful artists require to transport an audience to another time and place.

In this regard, theatre-goers are in very good hands. Playing Jacob and Mary are Kawa Ada and Makyko Nguyen, a pair of actors possessing enormous gifts, elemental presence, and gravitational chemistry.

As Jacob, Ada is immediately loveable, brimming with charm and bravado with depths of passion lying just below this surface. Nguyen lets us see every inch of the conflict beating inside Mary’s breast. Her love for Jacob is clear from the onset, as is her determination to drive him away; watching her guard gradually drop, and her heart re-open, is an exquisite transformation.

Seeing three culturally diverse artists perform in such a typically Anglo work casts the play in a more universal light. Embracing this, Jain does not have his actors adopt the Newfoundland accents that are written into the script’s vernacular. Instead they speak in their regular voices, similar to what some theatre companies do with classics, such as Shakespeare, where English accents are not adopted.

A personal note on this choice: I have seen Salt-Water Moon more times than I can recall, and have never fully appreciated the poetry and beauty of French’s language until now.

In stripping away the set, by untethering the language, and in casting three bright stars to carry the story, Jain’s production takes on a universal, human quality. It is an intimate, tender testament to what is so special about theatre as an art form. It’s enough to make you fall in love.

Salt-Water Moon by David French. Directed by Ravi Jain. A Factory Theatre Production touring with Why Not Theatre, on stage at Gateway Theatre (6500 Gilbert Rd, Richmond) until February 24. Visit gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.