Wonderland Salvage is the first Intime production I’ve seen that boasts a “This show may not be appropriate for children under 16” sign by the box-office. As I discovered, this warning is not without reason. The show is dark and deals with a number of depressing and serious issues one doesn’t usually expect to find in a story set at Christmastime. That said, it’s also a surprisingly touching and compelling production that, despite a slow pace and long running time, managed to capture my attention and interest.
Written and directed by J.D.M. Williams ’07, Wonderland Salvage is set in a pawnshop in Wonderland, Massachusetts, a real-life Boston suburb. One gets the sense from the moment the lights go up on the junk-laden set that this Wonderland, like so many poetically named places of its kind, has a hard time living up to its name.
The titular pawnshop is owned by Ray (Doug Lavanture ’08), an angry and slightly deranged Vietnam War veteran who has recently inherited his sister’s two kids – the more than just tomboyish Jacks (Whitney Mosery ’08) and the autistic Big (Shawn Fennell ’09) – who were abandoned by their mother the day after September 11, 2001. It’s now Christmas of the same year and everything begins to move towards its inevitably heartbreaking conclusion when an image of the Virgin Mary is discovered in a soap stain on a Boston pet store window. Hope for Jacks arrives in a more immediate sense in the form of Arjuna (Nitin Walia ’06), a Harvard student who finds his way to the pawnshop in hopes of ridding himself of a violin.
I saw the play opening night and the actors seemed a little uncertain getting started. But they warmed up quickly and it was easy to find oneself involved in their lives and problems. Williams has a remarkable facility for creating believable, human characters and dialogue. The scenes between Jacks and Arjuna are quiet, touching and real; they were my favorite part of the play.
But even as the endearing relationship between these two young protagonists unfolds, one is left with the agonizing sense that these moments of peace and happiness can’t last, that something bad and possibly even tragic is going to happen. And it’s a testament to the quality of the acting and the play itself that you genuinely wish it won’t be the case.
It’s hard to put the blame for the characters’ unhappiness on any one person in the play, although Ray is the likely scapegoat. As portrayed by Lavanture, he is not quite as dislikeable as you sort of wish he would be. But the play leaves us with the sense that there are no easy answers to the problems these characters face.
My main complaint is that these problems seem so numerous, addressing the issues of war, violence, terrorism, incest, racism and religious intolerance, that it’s easy to walk out the theatre feeling overwhelmed by all the serious issues Wonderland Salvage forces you to face.
Although this medley of issues gives the show a slightly unfocussed feel, Wonderland Salvage still manages to be interesting and moving, complemented by moments of humor and happiness amid the general misery. Ultimately, of course, it’s not a light-hearted show (the closing song, Ben Harper’s “Another Lonely Day,” which has for a long time held the unofficial title of the most depressing song in my playlist, helps drive this sense home). And yet, despite all this, it leaves you with both a glimmer of hope for some of the characters’ futures and an overwhelming sense of happiness that this is not your life.