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Salvage

nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
August 16, 2012

Desperation is an ugly thing, and desperation creeps its way into every dark psychological corner of Theatre 4’s production of George Brant’s Salvage in the 16th New York International Fringe Festival.  The play is a fantastic, dark portrait of three women at the end of their rope; all in very different ways, and all intertwined by their relationship with one man.  The complex, layered performances of the three actresses in the show and Brant’s rich writing offer an enthralling portrait of how one person (and their memory) can touch and shape so many lives.

Salvage opens with Kelly and her mother, Roberta, rummaging through boxes in their basement.  A storm is coming and will almost certainly flood them- they have only an hour to figure out what to save.  Slowly, their conversation reveals that they are going through someone else’s things and that the person is no longer with them.  Roberta’s son/Kelly’s brother, Danny, has been buried earlier in the day after a tragic car accident.  Danny was a bit of a hoarder and filled their entire basement with  40 years-worth of junk and memories (an earlier event in his life sent him into a tailspin and he never moved out of his mother’s house) and Roberta and Kelly must decide what is to be “buried at sea”.  Kelly, who has some psychological issues of her own, worshipped her brother and doesn’t want to let anything go; Roberta is wrestling with the memory of a son who couldn’t let go and a living daughter who’s going down the same path.  A wrench get’s thrown into this already volatile situation when Danny’s high school sweetheart, Amanda, swings in to give her condolences.   Amanda, now a successful writer, isn’t quite welcomed with open arms; Roberta blames her for her son’s death.  The novel that made Amanda famous featured a character that bore a little bit too big of a resemblance to Danny and was not very flattering, and he never quite recovered after she broke up with him before leaving for college.  Roberta’s coldness is contrasted by Kelly’s admiration of Amanda; she identifies Amanda with the times she remembered most fondly.  The dynamic begins to shift, though, when it’s revealed that Amanda’s reasons for her visit might not have been so sincere, and the consequences shake all three women even more to the core.

Brant does an amazing job of portraying different “shades” of memory and the very different way that each person values a specific moment or time- and that is the heart of his play.  Amanda was a pillar of this family's existence and her departure ravaged their foundations.  Roberta blames her for sending Danny into a tailspin, and even for the issues that her daughter now has-and she may only be half wrong.  But while Amanda is almost larger than life to them (beautifully put, Kelly at one point says, “I can’t hate you, you occupy too much mental space”), she looked on her relationship with Danny like most teens do a high school  relationship: “this is nice, but there’s so much more to see”.  And so much of the brilliance of this script comes out of this duality.  Things that are valuable to one person (say, Danny’s records to Kelly) are not to another (Roberta).

The characters are even more rich because they have this duality and conflict within them as well.  Brant makes each one so delightfully human, with so many shades of gray; and the actresses skillfully highlight each little complication beautifully.  Amanda is a villain; she reeks of an almost skin-crawling desperation, but Rebecka Jones makes you feel for her-and understand what she’s doing.  It’s amazing, the difference she shows in her easy manipulation of Kelly, and her utter helplessness in the face of Roberta’s anger.  Mariah Sage’s Kelly is so conflicted, so full of wonder and awe of her brother, of Amanda and the vision she’s created of her; portrays those sensations knowing that something isn’t right; but she seems helpless to right the wrong.  Janie Tamarkin shines as Roberta;  she is simultaneously a fierce, protective mama-bear, ready to go to the grave in the protection of her children (every time she scolds Amanda or gains the upper hand, she makes you want to cheer for her), all while depicting a growing worry and desperation underneath it all: she is so heartbroken by her son's death, and can’t bear to see something similar happen to her daughter.  Maryna Harrison’s direction squeezes beautiful performances and every ounce of tension out of the play.

Theatre 4 wanted to produce this play because it gave an opportunity to highlight amazing, complex female characters, something theatre is sorely lacking.  Brant and the cast deliver in spades.  It’s mentioned that the book Amanda became famous for was a literary page-turner and this is what Salvage manages to create onstage: a show so rich and compelling that you can’t wait to see what’s around the bend.