Famous Door Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

The coming-of-age story is a literary staple. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Catcher in the Rye, How Green Was My Valley–all of these works focus on a young man’s bumpy ride to maturity. And the young men in these stories tend to share two traits: literary ambition, and deep ambivalence toward their parents.

John Godber’s Salt of the Earth is his coming-of-age story, but instead of allowing the literary young man’s point of view to shape the audience’s opinion of the parents, Godber tells the parents’ story more objectively. This adds a valuable and compassionate dimension to the play. Paul, the young man, sees his parents in middle age as a fait accompli. But as Godber shows so skillfully, the parents have a long history together. They have changed over the years, in ways that their son can only imagine.

We first see May and her sister Annie as giddy young women who are interested in two strapping boys who work in the coal pits. May likes Harry, a terrific dancer, while Annie favors Roy, an ambitious young man determined to work his way out of the pits and become a shopkeeper.

The sisters marry their sweethearts, and marriage immediately begins to shape their lives. May and Harry soon have their only child, Paul, whose point of view will dominate the second act. Annie and Roy decide to postpone children until he is established in his shop, but she becomes infertile, and Roy falls victim to a terrible mining accident.

May eventually turns peevish and bitter, often starting fights with Harry. Annie becomes frail and anxious–so anxious that in one election she actually votes for the Conservative Party.

When Paul becomes an adolescent interested in the girl down the street, the sisters react in drastically different ways. May flies into a jealous rage when she discovers a hickey on her son’s neck. Aunt Annie, on the other hand, defends the boy, and responds with wistful understanding when she discovers Paul necking with the girl in the park.

By the end of the first act, Paul is getting As on his essays in school and turning a critical eye on his parents, whose constant bickering is becoming unbearable to him. But his parents stay together. The second act begins with their 25th-anniversary party. “If I’d ‘a killed May instead of marrying her, I’d ‘a been a free man ten years ago,” Harry says to the audience.

Paul has gone off to college, and his visits home become less and less frequent. When he does return, he is visibly uncomfortable around his parents. He can’t find anything to say to his father, and his mother is preoccupied with keeping the house spotless. “Every crumb of toast hit the carpet like a bomb going off,” Paul tells the audience while his mother crouches around the breakfast table with her whisk broom and dustpan.

The rest of the play belongs to Paul, who despite his college education and penchant for writing cannot quite let go of his working-class background. He tries to retain a connection to Tosh, his best friend, who now works in the coal pits; and when he sees Kay, his old girlfriend, he longs for her all over again, even though she is married and has two kids.

Paul’s final break with his parents–and all they represent–is excruciating to watch because it is more than a young man’s escape from his ignorant, bitter parents. That is Paul’s perception of events, and if we had to rely on his viewpoint, we might agree with him. But Godber has shown the parents in the context of their long life together, so the audience sees them more clearly than Paul can. The audience can even see that, to some extent, Paul is just another difficulty for his parents to endure.

Three of Godber’s other plays have been staged in Chicago recently–Teechers, September in the Rain, and Bouncers, which is still running seven months after opening at the Next Lab Theatre in Evanston. They all are propelled not so much by plot as by his keen observations of British working-class types. In fact, Godber’s plots are less like road maps than they are like footprints left behind by his characters as they go about their business.

As a result, his plays depend heavily on the skill of the actors who perform them, and the Famous Door production of Salt of the Earth includes some exceptionally skillful actors.

Elaine Carlson is particularly impressive as May. In the course of the play she transforms herself from a carefree, high-spirited girl to a bitter, angry woman. Carlson’s face actually seems to harden during the performance, and her joints seem increasingly stiff.

Dan Rivkin uses his remarkably expressive face to portray both sides of Harry–the jovial dancer and the oppressed coal miner who is subject to harassment at home as well as in the pits. As Annie, Elaine Rivkin perceptively shows her character becoming shrill and frightened with age. Rick Peeples flaunts his bulk to suggest the crude side of Tosh, while Kirsten Sahs deftly shifts gears to portray both of Paul’s girlfriends–the loud, aggressive Kay and the polite, demure Cherry.

But it is Scott MacEwen who ultimately creates the tone of the play. In his sublime portrayal, Paul grows from an innocent, awkward boy to a deeply confused young man. MacEwen seems to understand the deep ambivalence within Paul, who longs for the comfort and familiarity of his background even as he attempts to flee it. By holding Paul’s bitterness and boyish affection in an uneasy balance, MacEwen humanizes his character, and hints that Paul might just understand after all that there is more to his parents than he can ever know.