Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

the salvagers

The Salvagers At Yale Rep

The Salvagers by Harrison David Rivers, having its world premiere at Yale Rep, is the latest in a long line of semi-successful plays to indulge in kitchen sink realism. There is an angry young man at the center of the working class Salvage family – a Black angry young man at that – and yet the play does not deal with any of the wider social issues of the day, one of the hallmarks of the genre. Rivers’ concerns are entirely domestic.

Set in Chicago (“off the Belmont L stop” the program informs us), this is the kind of play in which a troubled family bickers, argues, and explodes into rage until secrets are revealed and uncomfortable home truths are spoken en route to a resolution of some sort – a more or less happy one in the case of The Salvagers.

Boseman Salvage, Jr. (Taylor A. Blackman), is a twenty-ish aspiring actor with a taste for Shakespeare who has returned from the Big Apple bruised and battered from too many failed auditions. The manifold indignities of the actor’s life alone might explain his anger, but it turns out there’s more to it than that. He suffers from an unidentified emotional issue serious enough to require medication and regular visits with a therapist.

Back home he works shoveling snow and in a restaurant while continuing to work on his audition pieces – Edmund’s “stand up for bastards” speech from Lear and the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, which takes on particular resonance as the play progresses.

The Salvagers presents us with a fairly standard broken home. Junior is living in a volatile relationship with his locksmith father, Boseman, Sr. (Julian Elijah Martinez), a decent guy with anger issues who tries and mostly fails to reach his disaffected son. His mother Nedra (Toni Martin), with whom he has a more peaceable relationship, works for the Post Office and is gay – a bit of a red herring which lets Rivers spring a surprise or two on the audience.

Both men develop relationships with women during the course of the action. Senior a fairly successful one with substitute teacher Elinor (McKenzie Chinn), while Junior’s friendship with Paulina (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) remains rocky.

But it is the father-son relationship that is at the heart of The Salvagers, with the female characters playing important but still peripheral roles.

The play meanders for nearly two intermissionless hours, stuffed with plenty of emotional pyrotechnics and the occasional brief burst of interpretive dance, until it ends on a minor note. Despite some occasionally effective set pieces for its characters, The Salvagers doesn’t add anything too terribly unique to the genre.

In a program note, the production dramaturg (Eric M. Glover) tries mightily to make a case for the play’s deep significance. Unfortunately, audiences don’t read the playwright’s stage directions or his artistic statement. Nor do they necessarily catch the hidden significance of characters’ names. Glover tells us that Boseman comes from the German for “bad, poor”, which explains what exactly?

For my money, The Salvagers seldom rises above the level of gritty soap opera. Based on the evidence of much episodic television, that seems to be more than enough for most folks.

What makes The Salvagers worth a trip to the Yale Rep is a stellar production. The director Mikael Burke has assembled an exemplary cast and elicited some spectacular performances from them, especially from the men.

The two Bosemans tear their passions to tatters in masterful ways. Burke has led them right to the edge of overdoing it without ever letting them cross that fateful line. The women in the play have less explosive parts, yet they all contribute lovely moments, especially Martin as Nedra, Junior’s mother. These fine performances went a long way to helping me overlook The Salvagers’ shortcomings.

B Entsminger has created a spectacular set entirely in shades of black and grey. Descending panels host video projections that take us to the snowy streets of Chicago or allow us to travel with Junior along Chicago’s L Line. The back of the stage is dominated by a vast mountain of snow like the ones you see piled up in the corners of city parking lots after a particularly heavy fall.

Nic Vincent’s dramatic lighting is every bit the equal of Entsminger’s visual imagination. Together they create some truly arresting stage pictures. The working class costumes by Risa Ando do not draw attention to themselves, which is precisely the point.

While the visual aspect of The Salvagers may overstate the somberness of the proceedings and be a little heavy handed with metaphor, it is undeniably attractive. Indeed, the design teams at Yale Rep, often drawn from students at the Drama School, are one of the most consistently successful elements of Rep productions.

The Salvagers continues at Yale Rep’s theatre on Chapel Street through December 16, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Yale Rep website.

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