Playwright Paula Vogel has said about "The Baltimore Waltz" -- the play she wrote in response to her brother's death -- that she can look at the audience and tell who's a member of "the community of loss."
That kind of loss is what is referred to in Jacqueline Reingold's bittersweet "Lost and Found," which is receiving a touching premiere at AXIS Theatre.
The play begins, however, with a more literal definition of "lost." A vacationing New Yorker named Sara loses her way in rural Colorado.
Although a good Samaritan comes to her aid, Sara is initially more afraid of him than of Colorado's dark, forbidding woods. When he finally persuades her to come to his house, she seems even more frightened by what she finds there.
The Samaritan, Larry, lives with his oddly precocious 10-year-old daughter, Tammy -- a child convinced that she can communicate with the dead. And this play has almost as many dead characters -- most of whom remain offstage -- as living ones.
Sara's boyfriend died of cancer three months ago; her trip to Colorado is one they had planned to take together. Tammy's mother also died recently -- in a car accident, with Tammy beside her. But as Tammy explains to Sara, she isn't afraid because she feels her mother is still with her.
Whether interpreted as a longing in Tammy's heart or a spirit from beyond the grave, that sentiment is the crux of "Lost and Found." And AXIS director Nina Knoche and her small cast keep the action carefully balanced on the thin line separating hokey spiritualism from genuine sympathy.
The naysayer when it comes to believing in Tammy's otherworldly powers is her father. But then, Larry also has trouble believing he has a daughter. Tammy's mother was an ex-girlfriend who apparently kept Tammy's existence a secret. After the accident the girl unexpectedly arrived on his doorstep.
Michael Dudzik plays Larry as a man more prone to irritation than introspection. He's irritated when Amy Black's Sara is hesitant and fearful about accepting his help. He's also extremely irritated when his daughter -- played with maturity and youthful vigor by 9-year-old Becky Wolozin -- insists on summoning the spirits of her mother, Sara's boyfriend and a widowed neighbor's late husband.
Though Sara is at first skeptical, she comes to believe in the girl's powers because, like the neighbor (Anne B. Mulligan) and Tammy herself, she needs to feel a connection with her lost love. In Sara's case, that connection becomes palpable when her boyfriend (Randolph Hadaway) appears after she becomes lost in the woods a second time.
"Lost and Found" is a play easily appreciated by anyone in "the community of loss." But it's not without rough spots. The ending is too pat, and there are plot problems. Several times Sara feels stranded and trapped in Larry's house, but it never occurs to her to simply go to the neighbor's. Also, director Knoche has inserted an intermission in a production that would flow more smoothly without one.
In the end, is the boyfriend's appearance intended as reality or metaphor? Or, for that matter, how is this play intended? In a sense it doesn't make any difference. What the boyfriend accomplishes by reassuring Sara of his love and allowing her to get on with her life gives "Lost and Found" a message beyond anything a "medium" can summon up.
"Lost and Found"
Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, matinee at 2 p.m. Oct. 1; through Oct. 1
Tickets: $12 and $14
Call: (410) 243-5237