World premiere play with music ‘Salvage’ launches in Los Angeles
From left, Christopher Fordinal, Nina Herzog, Leonard Earl Howze, David Atkinson / Ed Krieger

LOS ANGELES—What a nice little discovery, this new one-act play with music now at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood!

Salvage has a book by Tim Alderson, with music and lyrics by himself, Pat Terry, and the late Mark Heard and Randy VanWarmer. It’s this collection of intimate narrative songs, splendidly performed, that are the heart of the show.

Harley (Christopher Fordinal), a sweet young singer-songwriter whose wife Destiny (Nina Herzog) is expecting their first child, has decided to hang up his unsupportable dream before it destroys his family. There’s rent to pay, food to buy, and soon diapers. On his way to pawn his guitar, he stumbles across the decrepit dive where his musical hero, Floyd Whitaker, died. There he finds the inhospitable bartender Johnson (Leonard Earl Howze) and Preacher (David Atkinson), a lone, ill-tempered, hard-drinking customer strumming his depressing blues on an old guitar.

Who are these guys, and what do they know about Floyd Whitaker? And why are they so reluctant to talk? An adventure in song, psychology and salvation is in store.

“Weighing dreams and aspirations against responsibilities and obligations can be paralyzing,” observes playwright Tim Alderson, “and the accumulation of consequences from the choices we make can be scarring. Each of the characters in Salvage is struggling with this on some level. The words they exchange, whether encouragement or reproach, are meant as much for themselves as for anyone else.”

Salvage functions on at least a couple of different levels. One, implied by the title, is that people who have gone astray can find redemption. At least two of the included songwriters, Mark Heard and Pat Terry, are identified with the Christian music scene. On another plane, the play is a kind of parable teaching anyone regardless of faith that it is never too late to confront your demons, come to terms with your past mistakes, and set forth on a new path. This lesson is brought home poignantly, though from a theatrical point of view by an overly contrived coincidence that reveals past unknown connections among the characters.

The cast all have fine résumés: L.A. theatergoers should feel privileged to hear these voices and see these actors in dramatic roles, directed by Damian D. Lewis. Leonard Earl Howze’s edgy, borderline Johnson is not a musical role as such, though we hear him sing along on the final number. I would have liked to hear Nina Herzog’s Destiny in one more number.

The playwright Tim Alderson is a most interesting guy. Based on a short chat with him following the Nov. 16 premiere, I may have occasion to write about him again in a completely different context (see below). He’s a fifth-generation farmer who grew up working in the fields of Central California to a soundtrack of local artists like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Credence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty, and the area’s Mexican artists. He moved to Los Angeles to work in the music business with acts who were at the beginning or at a crossroads in their careers. He knows all about having a dream and finding the courage to follow it, which he did in his music career.

Alderson later married his wisdom to his farming experience by creating, and becoming executive director of Seeds of Hope, an enterprise which works to alleviate food insecurity for thousands of low-income households in over 100 communities across Southern California through a network of urban farms, food pantries, nutritional education and meal programs. Seeds of Hope is a food justice ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, so I can only assume its founder felt motivated by his faith to do something positive and constructive instead of pissing and moaning about the awful world. Alderson and I had a brief but promising discussion about social change and charity.

Joel Daavid’s set design picked up the honky-tonk quality of this important, but off-the-beaten-path bar that had once served as the watering hole for a generation of Central California songwriters. Its walls feature photographic portraits of some of the thoughtful and talented performers working in the CW genre who in their era made this little spot a hopping landmark.

The songs in Salvage are so well made; I only regretted that the individual songwriters were not given proper credit in the program. Spiritually they trace a slow path from the nihilistic opening number “I’m So Tired of It All” to the final “Rivers of Hope,” with its chorus “There’ll be rivers of hope when the love rains down.” It’s like a short-form course of psychoanalysis or Truth and Reconciliation, all in an hour and a half.

Destiny serves not only as wife and partner but also as muse. Since writing and performing his songs has been all Harley has ever wanted to do, she opts to encourage his creativity rather than nag him about getting a real job. “If you won’t be who you are,” she reminds him epigrammatically, “how can we be anything together?” Later she says, “When you know your destination, you’ll know which road to take.”

The more Harley finds out about the past lives of Johnson and Preacher, he’s prompted to tell them, “Your whole life has been about what you didn’t do.”

Though couched in a language with vaguely religious overtones, the message of Salvage applies to all of us trying to make a difference in the world.

Salvage plays through January 19 on Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90038. There is ample street parking. Reservations may be made by calling (323) 960-7712 or by going online here.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

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