You’d be forgiven if hearing a phrase like “suicide pact” evokes eye-catching headlines and scandalous stories made for nightly news programs and cable procedurals. But Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Tim Price’s Salt, Root and Roe, a co-production with St. Louis-based Upstream Theater, sets out to prove that a much simpler story, without any sensational hyperbole, can be the most memorable, and meaningful, of them all.
In Salt, Root and Roe, our protagonist Menna is having a bad day (though we’re soon to discover it’s more like a bad time for a long time). Menna, the daughter of Anest, who is one half of a set of septuagenarian twins, received an ominous letter from her aunt, Iola – a suicide note, really. Menna returns to her hometown on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales to find both sisters missing. After some time frantically waiting, the twins return home, and it appears to be a false alarm, until Anest confirms Menna’s suspicions: Iola plans to kill herself, and Anest says she plans to help. It soon becomes clear, however, that Anest plans to do more than help.
The sisters are twin-close, but Iola is suffering from the effects of a brain tumor. She’s forgetful and prone to bouts of violent paranoia, and Anest has sold off the second bed, so she and Iola can sleep tied together with a jump rope to prevent Iola from wandering off. Menna soon sees the effects Iola’s illness is having on the sisters, but she is determined to change their minds, as determined as she seems to be not to return home to her husband Peter, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The sisters, however, have other ideas.
Price approaches the story with a light touch, an approach that director Kenn McLaughlin seems to have adopted as well. Despite being symbol, myth, and metaphor laden, nothing here is heavy handed, and though melancholy is woven throughout, the Intermission-less play is ultimately not sad. The feel of the play can be attributed to the weight it gives the dignity that comes along with choice, played to perfection by Sally Edmundson and Donna Weinsting.
Salt, Root and Roe literally begins and ends with sisters Anest and Iola, so what a treat it is to have Edmundson and Weinsting in these roles. Edmundson’s performance as Anest is powerful. There’s a strength Edmundson lends the character that ensures that though she’ll bend (and she does), she will not break. Weinsting’s Iola, on the other hand, is perfectly erratic. The pleasant sweetness she carries gives way to befuddlement, her face pinched in confusion, and then later anger, like a cornered animal’s last defense mechanism, before going to heartbreaking uncertainty. The chemistry between Edmundson and Weinsting is palpable. Their connectedness and dedication to each other plays steadily though all their interactions.
Amy Loui’s Menna is a difficult character, tightly wound and overwrought. Within a work that aches with humanity, she embodies some of the uglier emotions – frustration, resentment, selfishness, childishness. Frankly, things that could easily make Menna unlikable. Menna’s struggles, however, are always playing out across Loui’s pained face. Her helplessness, and her unhappiness with her own life. It’s obvious why she’s looking to recreate a better past while trying to exert control over the present, so when she says things like “I can do anything I want” or “I’m in charge now,” it just emphasizes the futility of her attempts, making things all the more sad.
Loui also gets some balance to her character from her interactions with Eric Dean White’s kindly, well-meaning Gareth. He’s earnest, and he’s trying. He carries the weight of his sympathetic character without a lot of stage time, and in a way serves as a welcome palate cleanser of sorts to the main narrative.
The focal point of Michael Heil’s set design, with properties by Jodi Bobrovsky, is a backdrop made of scrim showing Anest and Iola’s hole-and-corner, a traditional, one-story Welsh cottage complete with a row of small windows and thatched roof that not only establishes place, but brings much needed texture to the stage. The set hints at the rustic, utilitarian qualities of Anest and Iola’s home, much of the furniture gone and packed boxes scattered around the perimeter. Ringed around the wood plank floor is sand and beachy weeds, making the coastal ocean landscape as ever-present in the design as it is in the narrative.
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In a show so heavy in symbolism, the creative team are all asked to chip in, notably Bobrovsky (including an appearance by a sea shell-adorned basket that proves to be a very important part of a very emotional scene) and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler. From the sisters’ wardrobe (nightgowns, cardigans, skirts) to the one outfit Menna is forced to wear because she brought no clothes with her and refuses all offered items, the costumes designs seem pitch perfect. Particular aspects though, such as the range of latex, nitrile and rubber gloves Menna appears in and a certain blue and white striped dress, stand out, as do the raincoats the sisters don for a repeatedly visited scene, which become instantly iconic.
Unsurprisingly, Steve Carmichael’s lighting design and Anthony Barilla’s sound design are most effective when they evoke water. Barilla incorporates a memorable string motif and an ocean wave soundtrack that is the stuff of soothing sleep sounds that sets mood brilliantly. Carmichael matches it by visiting a watery dream-like reflection, too, in his lighting designs.
Salt, Root and Roe is a touching, moving production that proves that maybe you don’t have to go out with a bang or a whimper. That maybe if we’re lucky, it can be a sigh, as gentle and natural as a breeze blowing in from the sea.
Performances continue 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. Through October 20. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 to $70.