During intermission on opening night of First Folio Theatre's world premiere of "Salvage," not everyone raced for refreshments and the restrooms.
Instead, some audience members stood at the edge of the stage examining designer Angela Weber Miller and props master Cassy Schillo's meticulously realized set. While Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" played quietly, they peered at "Star Wars" action figures, poster-size Marvel Comics covers, vintage toys (including Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots) and other assorted collectibles on display in Hidden Treasures, the lovingly maintained Detroit memorabilia shop where this romantic dramedy unfolds.
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"Salvage"★ ★ ★
Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 27
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate
Rating: For teens and older
Nostalgia figures prominently in Joseph Zettelmaier's engaging two-hander. And not just visually. Using classic rock tunes to transition between scenes, music and sound designer Christopher Kriz deftly conjures an era as well as a state of mind in this play about the things people hold dear, and the lengths they're willing to go to to preserve them.
The action plays out in a failed city, inside a failing business owned by Jason Byrnes (Tyler Rich), a quick-witted quipster and collectibles expert who gave up corporate sales to buy and sell memorabilia.
Using as down payment the inheritance from his beloved father ("who made me love the weird little corners of American culture"), Jason took out a loan and set up shop. The business floundered, however, and Jason faces foreclosure. That is until a nervous young woman shows up with a trading card from a long-defunct professional hockey team. Sarah Smith (Melanie Keller) asks Jason to appraise the card, which she says she came across while sorting through the belongings of her late, estranged father.
Romance blossoms between the garrulous Jason and reserved Sarah who -- coincidentally -- uncovers among her father's collection several other rare items. Among them is a Satchel Paige baseball card. Sarah asks Jason to find a buyer and insists they split the proceeds, which Jason needs to save him from financial ruin.
Much of the strength of "Salvage" rests with its believable characters and Zettelmaier's dialogue, so natural you almost forget it's scripted. Zettelmaier also does a nice job of managing tension, introducing it so subtly that it's almost imperceptible, except as a niggling thought at the back of your mind that things are not as they appear. That said, a couple of plot points strain credulity. And a couple of second-act revelations -- justifications really -- feel contrived and out of place. Worse yet, those moments take us out of the story.
Fortunately, director Alison C. Vesely navigates the theatrical potholes to deliver a first-rate premiere featuring fine performances from her compatible cast. The likable Rich is ideal as Jason, the unabashed comic and horror film fan whose expertise is never off-putting and whose passion for collecting has more to do with memories than mementos. He makes Jason's snark -- a fanboy trademark -- not just palatable, but endearing.
As for Keller, her careful, deliberate performance suggests something more than wariness and vulnerability. The subtle Keller seems to always hold something in reserve. Not exactly the reaction you expect from someone putting her baseball cards on the table.