“In me past, present, future meet,” wrote poet Siegfried Sassoon a century ago, and so they do in Bonnie Metzgar’s ambitious You Lost Me, now showing in a world premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts after being featured there in the 2019 Colorado New Play Summit. The action moves back and forth from a shipwreck that occurred in 1828 off the coast of Newfoundland and the heroic action of seventeen-year-old Ann Harvey, who, with her brother and their dog, saved the lives of 160 shipwrecked Irish emigrants, to the present, where a descendant of the same name serves as proprietor of the Shipwreck Inn, cooks moose stew and seal flipper pie, and struggles to attract tourists and keep the ghost-haunted place going. She’s helped by her poetry-chanting and somewhat narcissistic nephew, Joe-L, whom she dearly loves. He keeps a helpful blog and also likes to tempt and flirt with the lively and pretty young Edna, a recovering alcoholic.
Going back in time, we watch the slow and fraught recovery of the injured Mary, who lost her child in the storm and — traumatized and silent — is tended to by the first Ann Harvey. As the narrative unfolds, the movement between centuries speeds up, characters transform themselves faster and faster, and the division between past and present blurs. You can see how the past shapes the present, how the present both echoes the past and differs from it.
You Lost Me is evocative and often haunting. There are echoes of Irish playwright John Millington Synge’s beautiful Riders to the Sea, in which a widow laments the loss of her sons and her husband. As in Synge’s Aran Islands, the sea in You Lost Me is central for its soul-restoring beauty, its mythical resonances and the terrible, roaring dangers it poses. Joe-L (a lively performance by Luke LaMontagne) more than once quotes Rilke’s “Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you,” and he seems to be speaking less to Edna than to some raging and impersonal force: “And if you consume my brain with fire/I’ll feel you burn with every drop of my blood.”
The scenes that work best are those set in the present day. It’s wonderful watching Tara Falk as contemporary Ann patting together her seal flipper pie, and Pastor Paul, played by Gareth Saxe, promising to eventually make her a vegan meal. The two New York lesbians who show up at the Shipwreck Inn and argue about gay marriage feel far more alive than nineteenth-century Mary and Ann slowly sensing their attraction to each other. When lovely Mary, saved from the waves, quietly obedient to her domineering husband, sweetly sings, she sounds less like a flesh-and-blood woman than a glimmering maiden in an Irish folktale. These songs just happen; they don’t wind through the evening as you think they might, or recur at specific and significant moments. This reflects some lack of overall cohesiveness to the script, despite the skillful underlying structure. The two lesbian plot points clearly echo each other, but they seem inserted rather than organic. And the appearance of an actual ghost toward the end of the evening feels too literal, scattering the sense of shadowy ghostliness that’s been hovering all evening.
Still, there are many intriguing things about the play; the production, directed by Margot Bordelon, is skilled, and the performances are first-rate. Marié Botha is fine as young Edna and teenage Ann; she’s matched by Alexandra Milak’s appealingly gentle Mary. And both are as lively and amusing as you could wish as the visiting gay couple. It’s impossible not to feel your spirit brightening whenever Saxe’s humorous, eccentric and thoroughly charming pastor shows up. But it's Falk's layered and intense portrayal of innkeeper Ann that gives the evening its soul.
You Lost Me, presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through February 23, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org. There will be a Community Series Talkback with one of the performers at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 2.
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