David French's two-character gem Salt-Water Moon contains few dramatic revelations. Less than one-third of the way into the 90-minute one-act, the author has already played out most of his narrative hand: Boy loves girl; boy leaves girl; girl gets engaged to another boy; first boy returns and attempts to win girl back. Additionally, what finally happens between the characters comes as no surprise. French, however, didn't write Salt-Water Moon to compel audiences with plot twists or suspense; the pleasure in his charming pas de deux lies in savoring the tension between the would-be lovers as they awkwardly reignite their ardor. In Area Stage Company's current production of Salt-Water Moon (it runs through March 17 at the company's space on Lincoln Road), the immensely talented Todd Allen Durkin brings more than his share of energy and charisma to the role of the boy (Jacob). But in a one-note performance as the girl (Mary), Heather Brooks fails to sustain her half of the duet.
Set in Coley's Point, Newfoundland, in the summer of 1926, the piece begins with Mary Snow waiting for her fiance, the staid, respectable Jerome McKenzie, in the yard of the house where she is employed as a maid. While inspecting the vast summer sky through a telescope, Mary thinks she hears someone singing. Startled, she lowers the telescope, then returns to her stargazing. Just then, carrying a battered suitcase held together by rope, comes the source of that singing: Jacob Mercer, with whom Mary had kept company the summer before. Jacob abruptly left Coley's Point for Toronto the previous August without so much as a goodbye. Now he's returned -- to complicate Mary's life. Or, perhaps, to save it.
The previous two dramas in Canadian playwright French's trilogy chronicling the Mercer family include 1972's Leaving Home (about Jacob and Mary's sons marrying and moving out of the house) and 1973's Of the Fields, Lately (about son Ben returning home after Jacob suffers a heart attack). In 1988's Salt-Water Moon, French travels back in time to tell the story of how Jacob woos Mary. The work recalls another romance by a contemporary playwright about lonely but feisty characters: In Lanford Wilson's 1979 one-act Talley's Folly, also part of a dramatic trilogy about a family, Matt Friedman courts and wins Sally Talley. In its evocation of small-town northeastern life, Salt-Water also brings to mind Israel Horovitz's Gloucester plays that chart the lives of working men and women who live near the sea. Yet French has a distinct voice. He skillfully interweaves family lore, local superstitions, and language that proves both poetic and blunt ("I can't stand here all night reading the sky like Braille," Jacob complains at one point) into working-class lyricism. Using this language, French creates two believably complex and defiant individuals, as proud of their salt-of-the-earth roots as they are determined to rise above them.
As vividly written as these two characters might be on the page, however, the job of fleshing them out on-stage falls to the actors. Relaying Mary and Jacob's straightforward story seems simple on the surface, but maintaining an audience's interest in a 90-minute conversation between two people requires stamina and a multilayered understanding of character. Along with delivering Jacob's lines, Durkin riffs through a full spectrum of the young man's emotions, from confidence to panic to dreaminess to frustration, rendering Jacob simultaneously guileless and manipulative. No matter how hard Durkin works, however, he hits Heather Brooks's wall. Perhaps it was opening-night jitters for this young actress making her Miami debut, but Brooks brought little to her performance beyond having learned her lines. As Mary, she barely hints at her character's considerable inner conflicts, nor does she reveal a shred of attraction -- or even warmth -- for Jacob. Instead, her Mary seems hostile from the moment Jacob walks back into her life and remains so throughout the play, with an occasional arc into anger.
Then again, director John Rodaz must assume some of the blame for not coaxing a richer performance from Brooks. But Rodaz and Brooks aren't the only ones who fail to nail down the tone of the piece. Though the script tells us that Mary and Jacob are working people living in a weather-beaten, seafaring town, James Faerron's gingerbread-house set and Stephen Simmons's graceful costumes lend the evening too much of an upper-class look.
In different hands, Salt-Water Moon just might make us root for passion instead of security, and might evoke empathy for the difficulty that choosing one person over another entails. In this production, however, we're left confused by an on-stage tension bred of resentment rather than one that stems from sexual desire or anything resembling love.
Written by David French; directed by John Rodaz; with Todd Allen Durkin and Heather Brooks. Through March 17. Call 673-8002 for information or see "Calendar" listings.