John Godber’s play “Salt of the Earth,” directed by Thomas Murra and produced by Ka-Tet Theatre, spans forty years in the life of a small Yorkshire mining town. We open in 1947 with two attractive young couples: sisters May (Kathryn Bartholomew) and Annie (Suzanne Miller) and their two coal miner boyfriends Harry (Rob Glidden) and Roy (Joshua Katzker).
Coal mining is a horrific and dangerous form of physical labor, but the show does a great job of conveying the giddy excitement people felt at the prosperity won by these jobs after years of war and depression. Each couple marries off and makes grand plans for the future. Roy is killed in a mine explosion. We then follow May and Harry’s marriage, which to the outside eye, deteriorates. We see them fight viciously but they clearly share a strong bond of affection, especially when they dance.
The end of the first act and the second focuses on their young son, Paul. (Kevin Lambert) A relatively privileged child of the late Baby Boom, Paul is worlds away from his parents in temperament. He’s academically bright and has a shot at University. His social development and romance with a neighborhood girl (Stevie Chaddock Lambert) are stunted by his mother’s overprotectiveness.
The tense, tortured relationship between mother and son becomes the heart of the play. They each come from different worlds. Paul has the luxury to focus on art, ideas and emotions. May’s harder life enables her to express emotions only through putting food on the table.
Lambert and Bartholomew each do great work as characters trying to love each other despite the natural gaps between them, and Glidden and Miller do great work as May’s husband and widowed sister caught in the middle.
Politics and history are never far from the play as it moves the industrial town from postwar prosperity to Thatcherite decline, but Godber’s smart and sympathetic writing never loses the fact that political drama is meaningless unless it’s fundamentally about people.