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Tale told in snapshots lacks emotional depth

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/1/2012 (2038 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IMAGINE you met a woman and learned that she'd had a 35-year-old brother who was lost at sea.

Would you find it more moving to look at snapshots of the man enjoying his yacht, or to listen to a unique memory that conveyed the siblings' special bond and something of the vanished brother's character?

Jan Alexandra Smith shines in play's physical moments.


Jan Alexandra Smith shines in play's physical moments.

Chances are, it's storytelling that would stir your emotions.

Live theatre, when it works best, pulls you into its dramatized reality in a way that's not mind-based. Theatre is not journalism, personal essay, slide show or speaking engagement.

Lost: A Memoir, a one-woman multimedia play that opened Thursday at Prairie Theatre Exchange, has many strengths as a production. It's thoughtful, poetic, sense-evoking and beautiful to look at, performed on a glass-block set that acts as a sailboat/projection screen above a pool of real water.

But its true account of a troubled woman's search for her adventure-seeking brother -- a journey that becomes a mid-life quest for her own authentic self -- keeps the viewer at an unsatisfying emotional distance.

The production is by Theatre Calgary. The 2008 book Lost: A Memoir by former Winnipegger Cathy Ostlere has been adapted by Ostlere and director Dennis Garnhum. Neither is an experienced playwright.

The tale takes the snapshot approach, skimming over wide geographic and memory territory, seldom pausing long enough to craft a revealing scene or rounded characters.

It runs 90 minutes with no intermission. That's a length often settled on when a piece would have worked better at either a tightly focused one hour (such as Julia Mackey's superb one-woman Jake's Gift), or a greatly fleshed-out and deepened two-act work.

Jan Alexandra Smith brings dance-like physicality to Cathy, an initially glib -- and hard to like -- suburban mother of three whose marriage has gone cold. Smith also plays nearly a dozen other characters, effortlessly assuming accents. When portraying Cathy she speaks to the air, addressing her lost younger brother, David.

Smith tends to rattle at a fast, mannered clip, especially in early scenes that would be more effective with natural pacing and acting. At times, she's just not convincingly sick with worry. She shines, though, in highly physical moments such as a visually stunning memory of herself raising the sail on a boat off the Turkish coast.

The events unfold in 1995-96. The footloose David has set out on a small yacht with his girlfriend Sarah, intending to sail from Ireland to Madeira. He has asked Cathy to keep the risky Atlantic voyage a secret from their parents and two other siblings.

When David fails to phone home on his birthday, Cathy flies to Europe, determined to piece together what went wrong. The lush, fragrant island of Madeira awakens memories of her own period as a wanderer, when she had a sailor lover.

Months later, still adrift in suffering, Cathy goes to Ireland and Scotland, where David and Sarah lived. She unearths information that seems to confirm their fate. The Celtic attitude toward sea tragedies brings her comfort.

The play does a fine job of illuminating the central question of whether it's selfish and stupid to live life on the edge, or whether each of us should grab hold of the life that most fulfils us.

But it's thin on metaphors, other than the sailing one. And it paints a too-familiar watercolour wash of grief and its accompanying bewilderment, anger and emptiness, rather than piercing the heart with small, detailed, true-to-life portraits.

Cathy's marriage gets particularly short shrift, her cancer-afflicted husband remaining a flat character.

There's nothing here to equal the depth of emotion in Shirley Valentine -- another one-woman show -- when Shirley remembers taking a loving bath with her now-distant husband. That moment is more truthful than a lot of sincerely written true stories.


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