The world premiere at the Denver Center is a powerful piece of theatre that explores choice, relationship and grief in unexpected ways

Every scene in Bonnie Metzgar’s new play, You Lost Me, is surrounded by tumult and hard choices. Whether it’s the crashing of the waves around the little inn in Newfoundland where the action is set, the intractable positions the characters find themselves in, or just in the rocky shore evoked by the stunning set, the portent that hangs over it all is as ominous as the memory of the long-ago shipwreck that colors the entire story.

Dark, yes, but this is also, at times, a remarkably funny play rife with dark and folksy humor that — like the booze most of the islanders are dependent on — serves as a defense mechanism against the many forces aligned against them.

 You Lost Me will be the last production staged in the Denver Center’s Ricketson Theatre in its current form. When this play closes, the theatre will go under an extensive renovation, so scenic designer Reid Thompson had perhaps a little more leeway in creating this set. Gone is any semblance of a proscenium stage and in its place is a self-contained bit of Newfoundland that encompasses rocks and sea grass, the kitchen of the inn and a bedroom. It’s all wrapped in walls that allow for no drapes or typical places for entrances and exits, so those occur through nearly hidden doors that swiftly open and close.

Listen to the OnStage Colorado podcast interview with playwright Bonnie Metzgar

It’s a remarkable effect in itself, a nod to the trapped feeling many of the characters feel and a suggestion that no one can come or go in a normal manner. Add to this stunning projections by Shawn Boyle and original music and sound effects by Palmer Hefferan and You Lost Me takes its place among the many recent DCPA shows that dazzle with sheer stagecraft.

The story hinges on an actual event: a shipwreck in 1828 that saw hundreds of Irish immigrants tossed into the sea or perched on a rock far from shore. A 17-year-old girl named Ann Harvey convinces her father that the wreckage washing up on shore is worth investigating, and, along with a little brother, they rescue 160 of the survivors.

Nearly 200 years later, her fictional ancestor — also named Ann Harvey — is still tending the same inn. With only the lore of this and other shipwrecks to appeal to tourists, Ann struggles to keep the place going with only her sullen and lazy nephew Joe-L to help.

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Photos: Adams VisCom

Past & present

Director Margot Bordelon has a strong script to work with here — one initially heard in Denver during last year’s Colorado New Play Summit. As one of the plays selected for a full production, You Lost Me has benefited from a full development process, including a trip to Newfoundland by Bordelon and Metzgar to get a better understanding of the people, the place and the dialect inherited from droves of Irish fishermen who made their way across the Atlantic to the teeming cod fisheries of the Grand Banks.

Metzgar’s script deftly blends the 1828 story with modern day, with characters from both times occupying the stage — often simultaneously. With only five actors to portray them all, the cast members swap characters and costumes repeatedly. Bordelon at first has them doing full changes, and later just quick adjustments after the audience is accustomed to the swaps. It’s nicely done and helps keep the action moving with a minimum of fuss.

As modern-day Ann Harvey, Tara Falk (last seen at DCPA in last spring’s Sweat) is compelling as a woman simply exhausted by, well, everything. With guests at the inn in short supply, money is tight. But that doesn’t stop Joe-L (Luke LaMontagne) from boosting cash out of the oatmeal can in the kitchen — then flatly denying any wrongdoing.

Joe-L is the embodiment of every island resident who’s unmoved by the beauty and solitude and wishes only to get the hell out of there. His only solace is music and poetry — some he creates himself, but he also loves the Bohemian poet Rilke. Everything else around him — even his pretty, horny girlfriend Edna (Marié Botha) seem only to annoy, anger or bore him.

While 21st century Ann Harvey is navigating all that, her ancestor is feeding the Irish immigrants newly washed up at the inn. Botha plays this Ann Harvey, and the immigrants are represented by a couple who lost their infant son to the sea. Mary McCauley (Alexandra Milak) is in a state of shock, while her husband Alexander (Gareth Saxe) is threatening to beat her if she doesn’t snap out of it.

Saxe (seen last at DCPA in Anna Karenina) plays a much nicer character in modern day, a kindly pastor named Paul from New Jersey who falls for the inn, the coast and Ann herself. As the 1828 Irishman, Saxe sports huge chops and wields an accent so strong it sounds like he’s chewing every word. It’s a remarkable transformation for him to pop back up as Mr. Nice Guy, and his very presence lightens the mood on stage whenever he’s on.

Multiple threads

There’s a lot going on in this play, so much so that at times I wondered if Metzgar was juggling too many story threads. Other than being in the same physical location, what did the shipwreck of 1828 have to do with the tragedy that befalls the characters of today? The answer in part has to do with several individual choices in both times that proved to be forks in the road that changed everything.

One of those results in perhaps the most interesting character being largely absent in the second act. It’s a choice by the playwright that was no doubt a tough one, but ultimately it adds up: If she’d waited until the end to whack this character, it’d leave no room for the agonized soul searching that forms a good part of the action in Act Two.

You Lost Me ends up exploring meaninglessness alongside hope in equal measure. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, but Metzgar somehow pulls it off. There in Isle aux Morts Newfoundland, there’s grief and despair a-plenty, ranging back in time and up to present day. The characters are literally interchangeable on stage, and the mundane tasks of making bread or seal-flipper pie continue over the decades, over the centuries, in the same exact place forever. The waves continue to crash on the shore, the sun rises and sets and nothing changes.

This is what Joe-L cannot stand, and LaMontagne is terrific in this role as a young man burning with passion at the same time he’s wrestling with a soul that’s