Before I start the review of the last act of this new play, let me be clear that this is a work in progress, and this was the first public reading of the entire work (over two Tuesdays). It was a pleasure to be able to sit in and watch talented actors take on this material and hear the feedback from the audience and the process from the playwright, actors, and crew.
This is an intriguing work that takes on big themes…
Brief recap: Old Maine family — shipbuilders and traders — who made a fortune which is now, roughly seven generations later, dwindling. The extant family (two sisters, their two children, and an old family retainer) are meeting to ceremoniously hand over the legal running of the estate to the younger generation. But the sisters, Becca and Christine, are somewhat estranged, and the two grown children, Phillip and Peggy, have secret agendas. There is also a mystery surrounding their uncle Clem (brother to Becca and Christine) and his complete estrangement from the family and early death. Can this family find a way forward or fade into embittered disunity?
The first act gave us a structure for the familial relationships and a glimpse at the roles each character plays in the family (and we all know how those patterns take life when family gets together). Becca is the keeper of the shrine that is the Demings and its prized estate, Saltwater Farm (typical New England understatement since it’s set on acres and acres of land that includes a 1850s Greek Revival mansion). Christine, the youngest, is the wanderer and has lived in Paris for 15 years with her Duke (a match thoroughly disapproved of by the family). Peggy is Becca’s daughter, a practical, highly-educated lawyer and businessperson, and Phillip, Christine’s son, who apparently idles.
But the secrets start coming out from a most unexpected source. Phillip is much more than he appears, and his character haltingly evolves to be the moral center of the play. When faced with a truth about the dwindling money, Peggy — for all her assertions that she can live on her salary and remaining trust fund and work to reinvest the proceeds from the proposed sale of Saltwater Farm to developers — freezes. The theoretical has become reality and she’s not ready.
But it’s Agnes, the estate’s housekeeper and caretaker, who is their savior. While she seems genuinely fond of the family she has known since she was a teenager, she has also quietly, and without dramatics, taken action set in motion in her early twenties and held the course. She will be their savior, perhaps. But there is a price because once knowledge is out in the light of day, it can’t ever really be hidden. Alice has had her own hurts to deal with. Arguably, she’s dealt with them the best.
The play by Ann Timmons, a member of the Pipeline Playwrights, is an intriguing exploration that, during much of the second act, is extremely relevant to right now. It’s also relevant to any era or institution that has been sanctified because what gets edited out of history (whether personal or macro) also edits out reality. She has also managed to work in some history seamlessly and painlessly, particularly regarding the KKK in New England and their tormenting of French Canadians as well as Black people.
In that regard, it almost begs for a third act. Given the truths that have upended almost all of the remaining family members’ worlds (Phillip has had time to come to terms and make a long-range plan to atone and rectify), it wasn’t realistic that Becca would so quickly accept and capitulate to this new reality, and the new reality of the family’s future relationship with Agnes. There was a bit of smiling shark in her final words to Agnes. Katherine Stafford as Becca did a wonderful job with her character in this act. She’s wilier than one thinks.
All of the actors (Caren Anton as Agnes, Marni Penning as Christine, Stephen Strosnider as Phillip, and Robin Covington as Peggy) did splendid work portraying the emotional highs and lows of the revelations and imminent changes coming. I am really curious about how this will play out in the next couple of years of this family’s life which is a microcosm of the divisions in our society today.
This is an intriguing work that takes on big themes, and for the most part, handles the cascading bombshells very well. Hopefully, we will all get a chance to see it staged.
Running Time: Aproximately 45 minutes.
Show Advisory: Adult language.
“Saltwater Farm, Act Two” premiered on Tuesday, September 1, 2020. For more information on catching up with both acts of this new play, please click here.