Cathy Ostlere's Lost: A Memoir began as a series of poems, then became a memoir, and now comes to her former hometown of Winnipeg as a stage play (adapted by Portage La Prairie-born Ostlere and Dennis Garnhum, who also directs this Theatre Calgary production). But before any of that, it was a true story.
That last is largely what works in this production, giving Ostlere's story a brutal, often heart-wrenching honesty - but it's also what makes the story's transition to the stage choppy at points.
The story told is how Ostlere set out on a frantic search for her adventurous brother, David, who embarked on a 1600-mile sailing expedition across the Atlantic Ocean just before his 36th birthday. When he doesn't make his annual call home on that birthday, Cathy (played in this solo show by Jan Alexandra Smith) realizes something is terribly wrong.
As hours become days, Cathy's search for David - which takes her across the ocean herself - becomes more desperate, and the more Cathy searches for answers about her brother's fate, the more questions she finds. "I've heard so many things about what can happen at sea," she says at one point, "and not a single thing about what did happen to you."
This notion - that the sea could simply swallow someone you love - is terrifying, and its utter plausibility is what makes Cathy's quest compelling. Smith plays Cathy with an easy-going charm - a rich, throaty laugh is one of her defining characteristics, particularly in her many reminiscences of David. As the reality of the situation takes root, Smith has to take the character to very dark places, and she handles the complexity of Cathy's emotional state with aplomb in a powerful performance.
And from a production standpoint, Lost is a stylistic triumph. Bretta Gerecke's set, constructed primarily of clear cubes and rectangles in front of a curved wave-like backdrop, is cool and dispassionate as the sea (quite literally at points - the production also makes dramatic use of water on stage). Thrown onto the backdrop, Jamie Nesbitt's projections - everything from David's writing to maps to a radar screen - help give the story a sense of place and momentum. And Scott Henderson's bold lighting design helps reflect the many complex emotional notes in Ostlere and Gurnham's script.
At the same time, it sometimes feels as though the production's considerable visual appeal is compensating for some of the weaknesses in that script. While the truth of Cathy's story gives the tale an emotional punch, it's not always dramatically neat and tidy. One difficulty in staging the story is that much of it is about what doesn't happen - it's about waiting and fruitless searching and hoping. All of that may be truthful and accurate, but it's difficult to make things not happening dramatically compelling, and it sometimes feels like the narrative thread of Lost is wandering and searching as much as Cathy is (even at a lean 90 minutes, the play has a few false endings). As well, though her performance is strong, it seems Smith is sometimes wrestling with writing that would make for great prose, but doesn't always translate effectively as dialogue.
In the end, Lost, like many true stories, isn't exactly the story you wish it was, and has its share of frustrations. But it is buoyed by Garnhum's stylish production and the story's emotional truth.