‘The Never Summer’ at Theater 29 plumbs the psyche of the future

There are a lot of ways to explore the future in art. For Denver playwright Ellen K. Graham, taking a magnifying glass to one young woman stuck in a crap job in a train station opened up a wide range of dramatic possibilities.

The Never Summer is set in Denver around 2040. With almost the entire show set in a train station, we occasionally hear over the loudspeaker of trains heading to places like Rifle and Julesberg, but not many other places one might actually want to go.

But for Lee, a young woman whose job is sweeping the floors and scrubbing the seats of the station, that voice on the loudspeaker seems to contain magic. And it’s not the words, it’s simply the tone of the voice that tickles her, she says, at the back of the neck.

Calista Masters, a striking young actress who never leaves the stage, plays Lee with equal amounts of grace and befuddlement. Her friend, the irascible Janie (Meredith Young) makes occasional appearances to bitch about the smoke and dust outside. We learn from her you can no longer even see the mountains to the west through it all.

But unlike many a dystopian tale, The Never Summer doesn’t dwell a whole lot on the horrors of an authoritarian state or the ruined environment. Graham is more interested in what the impact of whatever that is on the people who live it. In the all-female cast, Masters and Young are joined by three other actresses (Bevin Antea, Gina Wencel and MaryAnn Amari) who play a variety of commuters, officer workers and restaurant patrons.

Much of the first part of the play, presented without intermission, is taken up with depicting life in the station for Lee and the hell of standing in line for people to make a buck for Janie. It’s that job — standing for hours in the bad air — that causes Janie to grow increasingly ill over the course of the play. And while their initial goal as a team is to save up enough money for an apartment (rather than sleeping on station benches), the game changes when the train announcer’s voice becomes embodied by “Corva” (Artie Thompson), a lovely and ethereal woman who convinces Lee her real goal should be to get the hell out of Denver and up to the mountains (the “never summer”).

Noise, noise, noise

The world of the station is one of continuous noise, whether it’s the trains coming and going, the announcements, advertisements or other things. Director Hart De Rose and Lindsay Astin designed the sound, and it’s an effective extra character that rarely goes away except in key moments.

Brian Miller designed the simple but functional set, with tracks in the middle and a mural by Morgan Lesh showing a tunnel up center. Miller also did the lights, using a lot of purple and red to great effect establishing mood and action. Theater 29 is not a large house, and Miller’s set is a great example of what’s possible in a small space.

That spareness of the set is reflected in the dialog, which has a David Lynch like feel to it. Most of the characters talk at or over each other, with Lee almost the only one who seems to even attempt human connections — or to wonder much about what’s going on. The commuters and patrons are mostly terrible people who rob her, insult her and bitch at her about things that aren’t her fault.

The Never Summer has a No Exit vibe to it, but the arrival of Corva does present a light for Lee, a kind of guiding angel she never knows for sure is real.

But real enough to spur action. When a tragic event involving an abused high-society daughter (Mariel Goffredi) presents Lee with an unexpected tool for escape, the two women find an exit — although by this point Janie is half dead.

Words, words, words

This is a play that rests on language, not only what is said but how it’s said. There’s a tangible background of anger among most of the characters about how they came to be in this place or situation. Their way of talking about it is through disjointed protestations aimed not so much at each other but at the world in general. If only they could get the right train ticket, or their dinner order done properly, perhaps they’d find some peace.

It’s a grim look at a future, where we can no longer see the Front Range, the air is almost unbreathable and your best chance to survive may be to hide underground as Lee and Janie do.

As directed by DeRose, The Never Summer has one foot in a fever dream and the other in a gritty reality. She did nice work putting the visual spin on Graham’s words, and the interpretation of how those words are spoken was, I would imagine, a subject of a lot of collaboration between director and playwright. All of the actors did interesting work finding the voices of these characters who seem in some ways to exist in their own bubble.

With the exception of Lee, who alone seems interested in digging deeper and looking beyond her own pain. Masters is a compelling figure at the center of the show, and she carries it well.

It’s a fascinating snippet of what lies ahead in 2040. Graham’s view is dark, with some hope, but it’s not at all clear that Lee and Janie’s exit is a successful one.

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Photos: Brian Miller