Did somebody who eventually became famous attend high school with you? Maybe you even dated that person, and you've carried that memory with you for all the years since. Hey, it could happen to any of us.
And that's part of the premise of Salvage by esteemed local playwright George Brant, now at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron. In this play that was originally commissioned by Theatre 4 in New Haven, Connecticut, a famous author Amanda Graham visits the home of Danny, her former high school squeeze.
Unfortunately, the occasion is somber because 40-year-old Danny recently died in a car accident, and his mother Roberta and grown sister Kelly are sorting through piles of boxes of the personal stuff in his mom's basement, where he lived. There's plenty of tension involved since a flood is heading their way and they have to get all of Danny's possessions, at least the stuff they want to keep, to higher ground.
On top of that impending threat, hurricane Amanda has arrived, bringing with her condolences and lots of emotional baggage. For one, Roberta blames Amanda for ruining her son's life by ending her relationship with him before she headed off to college. And 10 years later, just when Danny was recovering from that prom-era snub, Amanda published a roman a clef that detailed their doomed relationship in a manner that left Danny devastated and doomed to work at a dead-end job in a record store until his unfortunate demise.
While Roberta's dislike of the visitor burns with ferocity, childlike Kelly still retains a fondness for Amanda. Kelly had spent her childhood at the top of the basement stairs listening to Danny and Amanda talk and giggle in that same basement, between the songs on the records they were playing, and Kelly thinks that there still might be redemption that Amanda can provide.
But all is not as it seems, and we soon learn that Amanda has a secret agenda to her visit, apart from paying her respects to Danny's family. She's at a crossroads in her life, and she believes she can find the right path if she unearths the needed material from Danny's cluttered little room.
One can quibble with the some of the emotional structure of this piece, hanging all the weight of the drama on the slender peg of a fractured high school romance. (No one has been able to get over any of it? Ever? Really?) But there's no denying that Brant writes with a keen sense of character, accented by crisp dialogue that keeps you totally involved.
Plus, Brant weaves multiple details around and through these relationships, bringing out the humanity of each of the characters and making their plight feel credible. When simmering Roberta calls Amanda a "16-year-old apocalypse," to her face, you actually believe that would happen. And when Kelly moons over her brother's record collection —especially a particular Joni Mitchell song — and then avers that she's "not looking forward to waking up tomorrow," that also seems possible.
Even the unseen Danny begins to take shape as you envision him in that dank room, trying to extricate himself from his memories of Amanda and their apparently idyllic adolescent life together.
This is aided in no small part by the production at None Too Fragile, under the well-crafted direction of Sean Derry. DeDe Klein brings a no-nonsense air of determination to Roberta as she busies herself throwing out her son's trash, even as her daughter seeks to hold onto all of it. Klein can snap off a snarky line with the best of them. And when Roberta plays her trump card with Amanda, revealing she has the stuff the younger woman is seeking, Klein's Roberta revels in that leverage.
In the role of Kelly, Kelly Strand has perhaps the most difficult acting challenge as she observes the sparks fly between Roberta and Amanda. But Strand deftly juggles her character's conflicting emotions upon seeing the adored Amanda. ("I hate that my brother is in the ground and I'm so happy," she says.) Strand adds necessary ballast to the dynamics, keeping the play on an even keel.
And Derdriu Ring as Amanda is all cool distance and elegant sophistication, until she unveils her craven need to find something that can rescue her faltering career. This is not the most profound acting challenge the talented Ring has ever encountered, but she delivers the full measure of what Brant has written, and even more.
Essentially, what we have here are three women trying to salvage what they need from the detritus of a man's life that was not particularly well lived. There's enough tragedy and hope involved in there for a couple different plays. And thanks to the skillful writing of Brant and NTF's adept cast, the somewhat fragile conceit doesn't sink under its own weight and delivers us to a place where we can reflect on the importance of rescuing hope from despair.