Chicago Theater Review: SALT OF THE EARTH (City Lit Theatre)

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by Samantha Nelson on July 25, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Playwright John Godber grew up in a Yorkshire mining town before going off to college to become a writer. It gives Salt of the Earth, which follows 40 years in the life of family in a mining town, an autobiographical quality, strengthened by the fact that the sections featuring a real surrogate for the playwright are far more vibrant than the rest of the show.


Presented by Ka-Tet Theatre Company, Salt of the Earth starts excruciatingly slow, showing the lives of two young sisters and their miner husbands as they work on starting families. Nothing about the show’s opening works. It’s meant to be their salad days, but only the characters laugh at the jokes they make and the explanations they regularly give the audience make it particularly hard to get into the narrative. When one of the miner’s dies in a cave-in, it has no emotional impact beyond a frustration and fear that the play will plumb all possible mining clichés rather than providing anything satisfying.

Samantha Nelson’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Ka-Tet’s SALT OF THE EARTHBut after Annie (Suzanne Miller) stops weeping for her husband and fades into the background everything improves. This is partially because Miller is the weakest of the play’s main cast, but also because the play moves into deeper waters, really exploring the tensions and tenderness in the married life of May (Kathryn Bartholomew) and Harry (Rob Glidden). Thomas Murray’s tender direction shows that a couple can fight furiously and still share a deep and endless love, beautifully presented by their simple dance numbers.

Samantha Nelson’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Ka-Tet’s SALT OF THE EARTHThe first big laugh of the show comes from the introduction of Paul (Kevin Lambert), May and Harry’s son who transitions from the cradle to an energetic boy rushing to the stage from the back of the audience with his goofy best friend Tosh (Dan Meisner) in tow. The sections involving Paul are the best in Godber’s script, but Lambert doesn’t quite have the skill needed to do them justice. He’s excellent when it comes to youthful exuberance, but comes across as petulant rather than genuinely conflicted when the story gets heavier.

Samantha Nelson’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Ka-Tet’s SALT OF THE EARTHAnd it gets a lot heavier. The play transforms into an examination of the alienation that young adults feel about both their parents and home. Paul’s case may be particularly dramatic, but everyone who left home to go to college can understand the feeling of finding you no longer have anything in common with the people you once shared your life with. The fault is on both sides: Paul is condescending while his parents refuse to embrace any form of change, or accept that their sons ambitions may be worthy, even if they can’t relate to them.

Samantha Nelson’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Ka-Tet’s SALT OF THE EARTHThe actors announce the passing of years, an unnecessary conceit since the music provided by sound designer Robert P. Lloyd does such a great job of showing the era. The makeup that ages the actors during intermission also looks great, though the fact that none is used on Glidden emphasizes that he’s a bit old for the role he plays at the show’s opening. Miller should have just relied on the makeup and script to show her age, but instead changed her character’s voice to resemble something like Julia Child, making her otherwise solid scenes as Paul’s dotty aunt border on too odd.

There’s a lot of ground to cover in the decades that the show spans, and some scenes feel a bit rushed. But overall it’s a very enjoyable look at the challenge of reconciling where you came from and where you want to be.

Photos by Kaleigh Lockhart

Salt of the Earth
Ka-Tet Theatre Company at City Lit Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on Aug. 11, 2012
for tickets, call 800 838 3006 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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