Gavin Opp as Jacob and Andrea Pittman as Mary are former loves who find one another again in Salt  Water Moon

Gavin Opp as Jacob and Andrea Pittman as Mary are former loves who find one another again in Salt Water Moon

Love story is set in Newfoundland’s rocky past

David French’s Salt Water Moon, opening at Vernon's Powerhouse Theatre, shows post-First World War, pre-Confederation life on the Rock.

Thirty-three years before the heated referendum on whether to enter Canadian Confederation, Newfoundland was in another battle for its survival.

It started, coincidently, on what is Canada Day, July 1, 1916, in France during the Great War.

The Battle of the Somme saw members of the Newfoundland regiment caught in the crossfire from German trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, a bloody and relentless offensive that would play out for four long months.

Many of the 12,000 men from Newfoundland and Labrador, equating to 30 per cent of the then population, wouldn’t make it back from the war.

The ones that did struggled to find their way in an economically and politically depressed life back on the Rock.

It may have been bleak then, but there was always hope, and that atmosphere is captured in the play Salt Water Moon, written by Newfoundland-born playwright David French, which is about to take the stage at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre.

“This play is universal and also very Canadian,” said Arlene Spearman, a retired teacher who is directing her first full-length feature for Powerhouse (she has previously directed a one-act at the theatre and has also volunteered in many roles backstage).

“I read the play a few years ago and really liked it. The reason I chose it is because I wanted to do a Canadian play with the concerns and issues that affect us as Canadians.”

Set 10 years after the battle at Beaumont-Hamel at Coley’s Point on Conception Bay, Nfld., Salt Water Moon is part of a trilogy written in the ‘80s by French, which centers around the Mercer family.

“It is semi-autobiographical and based around the neighbourhood where French grew up,” said Spearman. “Newfoundland was not part of Canada then and people lived a different kind of life. There was no electricity. It was a rustic community.”

The play follows Jacob Mercer, who returns to his hometown after leaving without word to Toronto for a year. His aim is to reunite with his former love, Mary Snow, who in the interim has become engaged to Jacob’s archenemy Jerome McKenzie.

“Jerome comes from a wealthy family who own a fishing boat fleet while Jacob’s family are fishermen,” said Spearman. “It’s penned as a love story, however, there is no holding hands or kissing, but it is still passionate. It‘s about love lost and gained but there is infinite more going on here. There are the historical circumstances.”

Those circumstances go back to the First World War, where soldiers returning home could not make a living and would have to go on the “Labrador,” the term for going out to sea to fish off the coast of Labrador.

“Some would be out there for five months, and if they came back without fish, it was tough luck. Many fishermen found that when the war started they could make more money going to war,” said Spearman.

Both Jacob and Mary’s fathers enlisted, with only Jacob’s father returning.

“Jacob talks about his father’s experience, saying how the rats in the trenches were as big as cats,” said Spearman.

When the men would “go in collar” (meaning to sign on as a member of a fishing or sealing crew), the humiliation of not bringing fish back was a heavy burden.

“You ended up sitting on the porch like an empty cradle for two months on end. It’s why Jacob leaves for Toronto to get an occupation,” said Spearman.

Mary, in the meantime, works as a domestic servant in the 19th century manor home of the local member of parliament, the right honourable Henry Dawe, and his wife Emma, and is marrying Jerome so she can escape her situation.

Taking on the heavy load as Jacob and Mary are actors Gavin Opp, 19, and Andrea Pittman, 20, who alone have to give life to the back story and all the 22-plus characters in the play.

A graduate of the respected theatre program at W.L. Seaton Secondary School, Opp recently appeared in another war-time set drama, War on the Homefront, written by local playwright Michael Poirier, while Pittman is a graduate of the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria. This is her first play at Powerhouse.

“Both are delightful and have put in an extra commitment to the play,” said Spearman.“This is a difficult play to do… There are layers upon layers, with no paraphrasing. Every single word has a reason and purpose and it’s written in beautiful language. My hope for any audience is that they will fall in love with Jacob and Mary like I did.”

Set under the full moon, the play features a re-creation of the Dawe house, designed and built by Gord Bannerman (his first set for Powerhouse, although he has served on the crew for past productions).

“It had to be solid because the door gets slammed quickly,” said Spearman. “Because the house is on the ocean, you will hear the waves and seagull calls and Newfoundland music that comes from Scotland and Ireland.”

In fact, the set has received some feedback from Andrew Mercer, lead singer/guitarist of local band Cod Gone Wild, who is originally from Bay Roberts, located near Coley’s Point on Conception Bay.

“He came to see the set and he said it was just like Grandma Dawe’s house,” said Spearman, adding Mercer will also entertain audiences by playing some traditional Newfoundland music in the Powerhouse lobby before the curtain opens March 7.

Salt Water Moon opens at the Powerhouse Theatre Wednesday, Feb. 25 and runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. until Saturday, March 7 (no shows Sunday or Monday nights). Matinées are at 2 p.m. March 1 and 7. Tickets are at the Ticket Seller, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.

 

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