It’s difficult to pin down the genre of Milan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier’s play “Salvage.” Promo materials for a 2014 production of the show in Chicago used no fewer than three hyphens to describe the play’s tonal mash-up.
“The (description) they used was, ‘It’s a romantic-comedy-drama-mystery,’ ” Zettelmaier laughs. “I feel like that’s actually a pretty good description of it.”
“Salvage,” which runs at the Performance Network Theatre through May 24, features just two characters on a single set. Jason is a Detroit collectibles shop owner whose personal and professional life changes dramatically when a woman named Sarah arrives on his doorstep with some very rare objects for appraisal.
“They fall in love and they start to plan a future together,” says Redford Township-based director Joey Albright. “There’s a twist that I don’t know if we should give up, but it turns out that she’s not all that she appears.”
On top of the romance between the two leads, the intrigue surrounding Sarah and comedy throughout, the play also has considerable political subtext. Albright describes Sarah as “almost a modern-day pirate” whose actions raise some moral dilemmas, particularly for Jason as a down-on-his-luck businessman. Zettelmaier says the 2008 housing crisis was a key inspiration for the story.
“I was kind of just sitting back and going, ‘Wow, there is some fundamental kind of structural wreckage going on, and what does that mean?’ ” Zettelmaier says. “The reason it’s called ‘Salvage’ is because it’s about trying to salvage our life when the world that we thought we were supposed to be living in turns out that it’s not that world at all.”
Zettelmaier, who has family from Detroit and worked in the city for several years, saw the Motor City as an ideal setting for his play. There are few overt references to Detroit, but Zettelmaier says sharp-eared locals may pick up on subtle clues that pinpoint the story’s exact setting. Ann Arbor actress Katherine Banks, who plays Sarah, says Zettelmaier captures the overall feeling of the region in a way local audiences will easily recognize.
“I feel like we’ve all stumbled on these out-of-our-way little stores that we never knew could exist or thrive when we’re hanging out in Detroit,” she says. “Jason talks about the way he’s struggling financially and the lack of disposable income ... I think people will find that familiar.”
Those tucked-away shops are intricately recreated in the Performance Network’s “Salvage” set, a fascinating attraction in and of itself. Zettelmaier says he was “blown away” by the set.
“There’s movie memorabilia, there’s sports stuff, there’s chess boards, there’s street signs, there’s autographed photos,” Zettelmaier says. “Basically anything of collectible merit can be found at the store.”
Onstage bric-a-brac, Detroit nods and mysterious twists aside, Banks says the basic idea behind “Salvage” is simple and relatable to any theatergoer.
“At the end of the day, it’s a love story that’s told in a really interesting way,” she says. “I think it has interesting ideas about if you can ever really be yourself, if our personalities are malleable and if we’re always being different people depending on who we’re with.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.
Through May 24
7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Performance Network Theatre
120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor