SALT LAKE CITY — What would you do if a traumatic event from your childhood continually haunted you? How would you cope being your own unreliable narrator? These are just two heady questions posed by Morag Shepherd’s Poppy’s in the Sand presented by Sackerson as part of the inaugural Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival.
Keele is a young woman with a complicated yet dependent relationship with the sea. She feels claustrophobic and short of breath too far inland but fears what the sea can take away if you get too close. Keele lost her sister to the sea. Or was she buried in the sand? Was Keele responsible? Her mother, Frankie, definitely blames Keele for Poppy’s loss, but Frankie is clearly not grounded in reality all the time. Roan, Keele’s father, struggles with the damage Frankie’s stories wreck and his desire to keep Keele safe. Roan is less affected by Poppy’s death, but he has plenty of his own demons. Keele is determined to find out what her parents aren’t telling her and the truth. I’m not going to share what probably happened, which is almost clear after seeing the performance, because you should see it if you can. Besides, what happened is less important than how the cast goes about finding out. Keele decides to go back in time to moments in her past that could tell her the “truth.”
Maddy Forsyth as Keele portrays the whole range and depth in turn of a little girl struggling with loss, a teenager understanding her demons are not so different from those of her parents, and a young woman intent on not being defined by mental illness. Brighton Hertford makes Frankie compelling, her quick flashes of anger and vindictiveness are intriguing as well as unnerving. Hertford also has moments of absolute and heartbreaking vulnerability tempered by quiet humor and
enhanced with a polished Scottish brogue. While Frankie is clearly struggling with a mental illness that can make her delusional, Roan is a man with deep depression trying to hold on and keep things clear enough to protect Keele. As Keele goes through her memories, she manages to go back further than even her beginning. The audience sees a moment of Frankie and her mother, providing insight into Frankie’s unique parenting style. The play also shows when Frankie and Roan met, drawn to each other and maybe to each other’s darkness, and then how the same things that drew them together tear them apart.
Mark Fossen plays Roan as a little world weary, but willing to believe that “better” exists. He is a sad man, someone who is overwhelmed by the world at large, but he is kind. He finds comfort in wine and music and Keele, but only as long as his body will let him. This trio may sound depressing, but that is the beauty of Shepherd’s script— they aren’t. They face hard things and very little is clear, but it is never melodramatic. Grief is a complicated process, and so is living. As Keele strives for the truth, more becomes unclear.
Director Dave Mortensen (See Note 1 below) has a light touch, guiding his actors to create strong and captivating moments on stage. There is no underlying pity or fear in dealing with depression, self-harm, death, or mental illness, for which I applaud him. Mortensen and the cast made excellent use of a minimal set and props courtesy of Shelby Greer, transforming a stark performance space with a sea-foam colored sheet and a pile of sand into whatever locale needed to tell the story. There is a fearlessness about the whole production that was refreshing. The intensity of the story was also highlighted by a musical underscore provided by Rob Stark and Gary Argyle playing acoustic guitar and banjo. Stark and Argyle also performed before the show, presenting a musical prologue to piece.
Like the ocean, Poppy’s in the Sand, is a story with ebbs and flows that signify belonging in a greater cycle. This piece has grace and edge, but is ultimately a really interesting 45 minutes of live performance. While there is no clear resolution, Keele and her journey encourages audiences to consider what truth is, how one finds it, and does one do when it is found.
Note 1 – The director of this production is the founding editor of Utah Theatre Bloggers Association. Also, the playwright is regular contributor to the blog, and an editor. Neither was involved in the writing or editing (save for adding photos) of this piece. Honest criticism was encouraged.