Yellow Moon at Writers' Theatre | Theater review
Two troubled teenagers hit the road in Scottish playwright David Greig's work, charmingly staged in its first American production at Writers' Theatre.
Four actors work as one in David Greig's 2006 work, a piece that feels like a young-adult adventure novel that's escaped the bounds of print. Like he does in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which was seen earlier this season in a National Theatre of Scotland production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Scottish playwright employs a shared-narration style, in which the cast members trade off the reins of the story while shifting in and out of character.
It's a choice that feels like it could only work in a properly intimate staging—which is what director Stuart Carden provides at Writers' Theatre's small auxiliary space in the rear of a Glencoe bookstore. The audience surrounds all four sides of the bare stage, putting us close enough for the actors to make eye contact as they recount the tale of two unhappy teenagers on the run.
In previous productions, Yellow Moon bore the subtitle "The Ballad of Leila and Lee," and while it's clearly a contemporary setting—references to glossy celebrity tabloids and the Norwegian ’80s band A-ha play roles in the narrative—it has the feel of a murder ballad or a folk tale, with its bits of rhyming verse and recurring images of deer.
Lee (Josh Salt), or "Stag Lee," as he prefers to be called, is a 17-year-old who hides his emotional scars with bravado and big talk. His classmate Leila (Ashleigh Lathrop) is a sort of self-imposed outcast who just stopped speaking a few years back; feeling ugly and out of place as a Muslim and immigrant in Scotland, she inflicts actual scars on herself, cutting her arms to feel "real." They have a chance meeting one night in an all-night superstore but are soon bound forever—when trouble arrives in the form of Lee's mom's violent boyfriend, Leila and Lee make a pact to run away to the Highlands in search of Lee's long-lost father.
Salt, a young actor on a quick rise in the last couple of years, is compelling in capturing Lee's frightened swagger, and Lathrop handily contrasts "Silent Leila's" meek demeanor with her roiling inner life. Once they're discovered by a groundskeeper (John Lister) who senses they're on the lam and takes them in as a kind of indentured servitude via blackmail, the play settles into the business of the young man and woman discovering new aspects of themselves in each other.
Lister and Karen Janes Woditsch each portray a pair of adults encountered by Leila and Lee; Woditsch gets the short end of the stick as Lee's depressive mother and a visitor to the lodge where the kids take refuge. The latter feels like an egregious, rather ham-handed vehicle to deliver a message to Leila about her self-worth. But on the whole this is a quietly moving, skillfully immersive dual coming-of-age tale.