The Salvage Shop
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 2, 2005
Sylvie Tansey is dying. We don't know this for certain until midway through Act One of The Salvage Shop, but we sense it as soon as the play begins. It's in the desperation of a strong and proud old man shaking his fist at looming mortality by pretending he can drink and cuss and raise as much Cain as he ever did. And it's in the sorrowful, dutiful restraint of Eddie, Sylvie's middle-aged son, as he returns to his childhood home to run the family's eponymous business and handle all that needs to be handled in preparation for Sylvie's imminent demise.
But of course what most needs handling is the ruined relationship between father and son. Sylvie's vocation, salvage shop notwithstanding, is music, and for decades, having followed in his father's footsteps, he's been "captain" (conductor) of a small band here in this remote Irish town of Garris. Eddie was in the band; played the cornet like an angel, we're told. But twelve years ago, he failed to turn up for an important competition, much to his father's consternation. Eddie had an excuse—he'd just learned that his wife was having an affair with a local entrepreneur called Josie Costello—but Sylvie was unforgiving about Eddie's absence. And so the prodigal son abandoned the disappointed dad for more than a decade, until now, when circumstance and necessity has brought him back home.
All of this has occurred, of course, before the action of The Salvage Shop. It's revealed to us, in dribs and drabs, as the main story of the play unfolds. The central conflict of the drama is, what can Eddie do to make up to his father for that long ago failing. He eventually comes upon an outrageously fantastical solution to assuage his heavy heart, which in the doing leads him on a path toward redemption. Playwright Jim Nolan doesn't pull us far from our comfort zone in delivering a conclusion that's perhaps too pat and unsurprising; but The Salvage Shop does sketch a convincing and compelling tale of familial recrimination, regret, and rebirth.
Peter Dobbins has directed the show with a firm and unsentimental hand, finding the natural comedy and tragedy that commingle in a story as homely and straight-from-the-heart as this one. It plays out on a richly detailed set by Todd Edward Ivins that depicts the shop of the play's title; it's filled from floor to ceiling and from end to end with junk, junk, junk, almost none of it ever used, touched, or even acknowledged during the drama's duration—that's a fit metaphor for the waste that men make of their lives too often, don't you think?
David Little gives a triumphant performance as Sylvie, marshaling his energies for a series of emotional scenes in the second half of the play that bare this man's soul in small, and therefore remarkable, ways. Paul Anthony McGrane, at least at the performance reviewed, seems less in tune with his character of the repentant son Eddie—I didn't feel the frenzy of misapplied industry that I thought would mark this man as he races the clock to win back the respect of a father that he's sure he's lost.
Filling out the tale are Eddie's girlfriend, Rita, and his college-age daughter, Katie, both of whom try, in different ways, to help Eddie repair the bridge he burned a dozen years before. Kristen Bush is luminous as Katie, and also fierce and intelligent. Karen Eke is, appropriately, somewhat shadowy as Rita—we don't really get to know her except in terms of her relationship to Eddie. Ted McGuinness has a single memorable scene as Eddie's sometime rival Costello, who proposes an unlikely alliance that, predictably, Eddie can't even dream of considering.
The finest performance of the evening, though, is undoubtedly that of Roland Johnson, who plays Sylvie's good-natured comrade (and band member) of very long standing, Stephen Kearney. Johnson's grace reveals what a rock this man has been for Sylvie all these years. I enjoyed watching him in repose, listening; or working on a project as audacious, in its quiet way, as Eddie's—restoring a set of stained glass church windows depicting the Stations of the Cross that were originally created by his father.
The Salvage Shop doesn't finally break any new ground, but it's a well-crafted and involving story of how relationships falter and how they're mended. It's never really a question which of the Tanseys is going to be salvaged in the play. But thanks to the firm guiding hand of Dobbins and the fine work of all his collaborators at The Storm Theatre—who, incidentally, are giving this play its New York premiere—the reclamation of the Tansey soul makes for a touching and ultimately rewarding theatre experience.