What happens when the person you are closest to for your life is desperately ill and wants to die? And how much more confounding is that when that person is your sister, your twin sister?
In Salt, Root and Roe, about to begin performances at Stages Repertory Theatre in a co-production with Upstream Theater in St. Louis, veteran Houston actor and director Sally Edmundson plays Anest, the healthy sister. She decides to join her sister Iola in death, but is interrupted when her daughter Menna (Amy Loui) returns to their home on a remote coast of Wales and argues that they should fight to live.
In the play by Tim Price, Iola wants to move up her exit from life because the inoperable brain tumor in her head is changing her in ways she doesn't like. "It's affecting her personality. The tumor is periodically pressing on things that make her not herself. She can be violent. It does sort of seem like Alzheimer's but it’s not. With Alzheimer's there's no hope, whereas with a tumor she can sometimes. But it's becoming more and more imminent her deterioration and her demise," Edmundson says.
At 80 years of age, Iola (Donna Weinsting) "has decided that the way she lives is her choice as is the way she dies. That’s what this play really is about: honoring the human need and choice. And with dignity," Edmundson says. "She hates losing herself. She hates it when she realizes she has hurt me physically. And she doesn't want to live like that. So she has made this choice."
Her challenge as an actor has been to understand and accept Anest's reasoning, Edmundson says. "Yes twins are close; there is this embryonic relationship. but I’m well. So why do I make this decision? That’s been a very interesting challenge to find why I go." Edmundson says she finally determined that Anest has spent her life taking care of and protecting Iola. "Iola says at one point 'I’m the stronger twin.' That’s not true. I am."
Anest's relationship with her daughter is not an easy one. Although she loves her dearly, Anest has never been able to connect with the troubled Menna the way her sister has. From Menna's standpoint, Edmundson says, she feels excluded by this special bond between her mother and her aunt.
Here she is suffering emotional and mental illness due to her very damaging marriage to someone who is extremely OCD. She has lost herself in trying to accommodate this mental illness she's living in. She’s always in rubber gloves and she’s constantly cleaning. That creates another dynamic. have not told her of this decision and I haven’t been able to because how do I tell this precious person that I adore who breaks my heart because we don't have the kind of connection I wish we did and you married this person who I knew from the get go was horrible for you and who are you now? Where has my beautiful daughter gone?"
In this co-production effort, the play was performed in St. Louis last spring, directed as it will be here by Stages Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin. Edmundson cites both her fellow actors and McLaughlin for taking a deep dive into all facets of this play — working that is still continuing with the Houston production.
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The advantage now is, Edmundson says, that they all have their technical marks down and know their lines already so they can really focus into going further into the depths of the characters during this 16-scene, no intermission play. "There's room for an actor, there's so much room for deepening the subtext and the relationships of these people."
The language of the play by Welshman Price is beautiful. "I was so taken in by the the poetry and the natural sounding of this lyrically poetic dialog." And the play itself is really hopeful, Edmundson says. "It's facing what we all face with acceptance, a peace.
"At the end of the day, this is about death. But it's not the end of the world."
Performances are scheduled for October 4-20 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25-$70.