Salt tackles mental illness with complexity and nuance, on stage in Toronto
Salt is a beautiful and harrowing portrayal of mental illness and abuse by Toronto-based playwright Erin Vandenberg. It’s being put on in the Alumnae Theatre by the Lark & Whimsy Theatre Collective. I had no idea what to expect going into this new two-hour drama, but was and still am completely taken by it.
I get nervous going to see shows about mental illness, because it’s something very personal to me that’s often done wrong. I’ve even acted in shows as the “depressed” or “insane” character where the script will necessarily produce a caricature. But Salt is very honest in its exploration of abuse and mental illness, told through the experiences of a broken family in rural Ontario.
Nothing in this show was reduced to a list of symptoms that I could find in one of my old psychology textbooks. The text wasn’t going out of its way to slap labels on its characters. And because of that, their situations felt very real and horrific because nobody, neither them nor the audience, could fully comprehend what they were experiencing. As someone who has struggled with mental illness for a long time, it was nice to see a show that didn’t try to break it down into individual disorders or simplify it.
And I think that depth might be why both my guest and I felt that Vandenberg’s writing in Salt was reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. Its bleakness, themes, and intense focus on family dynamics reminded us both of Williams, though my guest mentioned Arthur Miller as well. This is certainly its own show though, with deeply fascinating characters played by some very talented actors.
I was particularly fond of Lucy Hill as Petal, who ably captured a very broken young girl who still had so much light in her that was slowly choked out over the course of the show. Philippa Domville blew me away with her portrayal of the abusive, alcoholic mother Vivian. Through the tone of her voice and her expert movement onstage, she managed to elicit sympathy and even understanding from me despite playing a character whose actions were really quite repulsive. That said, all of the performances in this play were wonderfully expressive and each character felt lifelike.
The lighting design by Gabriel Cropley was excellent, with some really neat imagery, by Anna Treusch and Briana Brown, projected onto the off-white walls of the set. What really blew me away, though, was Lyon Smith’s sound design. Old-timey music fading into haunting ringing and screeching helped to build the atmosphere and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the show.
There were some issues that I had with the second act, mainly that the execution of certain plot points felt a bit awkward. In particular, there are several big moments that are foreshadowed early on and fit the narrative well, yet feel out of place due to some combination of stilted dialogue and awkward direction. This certainly didn’t ruin the show for me and I still think it’s a great production, but it did stop me short of being able to say that this is hands down the best new piece of theatre I’ve seen in recent memory.
Sometimes when I’m headed to an “original” show, I can’t help but be a little hesitant. It’s not uncommon to come away from a new play feeling a little let down, or even wondering how it got put on in the first place. I still support new theatre on principle, but I do get weary. Now and then I’ll stumble across something that reminds me why I’m so adamant about giving everything a shot, because sometimes I’ll find something beautiful. And Salt is one of those plays.
- Salt is playing at the Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley St).
- Performances run until Sept 28, 2016.
- Shows are at 7:30PM Tue – Sun. With 1:30PM matinees on Sat and Sun.
- Run time is approximately 120 min with a 15 min intermission.
- Contains coarse language, sexual content, sensitive subject matter
- Tickets are $20
- Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.
Photo of Lucy Hill as Petal, by Robert Harding.