This article originally appeared in Westword.
John Ashton is well known in the Denver theater world and has worn many hats: actor, director, playwright and impresario. He ran the cozy, late-lamented Avenue Theater for several years, and his play Murder Most Fowl was first shown there in 1988. Subsequently, it popped up again and again in venues around town, each time with almost entirely the same cast of comic actors and each time arousing roars of laughter from new audiences as well as numerous faithful fans.
Ashton’s Dearly Departed had a somewhat similar, though shorter, journey. But over the years, he has also directed and acted in serious works — for example, Conor McPherson’s subtle and moody The Seafarer, which was staged by Ashton Entertainment Productions and won a Best of Denver award from Westword.
His latest play, Before You Go, will have its world premiere at Miners Alley from August 27 to September 19. This is the second production of the company’s new season, and it occurs at a time when local companies still feel as if they’re operating on a knife’s edge, unsure of what COVID-19 might do or what new restrictions may be imposed. The company is requiring all audience members to be both masked and vaccinated, and the play is also available streaming.
Ashton says he isn’t entirely sure how many plays he’s written over the years, but he believes this is somewhere around the tenth. “Most of the rest were comedy-murder mysteries like Mystery of the Rainbow Diamond for the Arvada Center,” he says. “And I’ve written at least half a dozen as fundraisers for organizations like the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.”
Before You Go is more serious. “In a general way, it deals with how we all make mistakes — some of them are whoppers,” Ashton says. “It’s about how we often hurt the people we love and how we struggle to forgive ourselves and each other, and how you can do that. It takes courage and letting go of some things.” In the play, three adult children visit their dying mother. One is “a hapless guy who’s never found a niche in his head and heart, the other an atheist priest. There’s their younger sister, who’s had a very rough path but who’s settled down and now is on an even keel. They all have different approaches to life, and have found answers to what they all need, but those answers are all tentative. As answers are. We are all searching for the meaning of life, and most of the answers are subjective.”
It is doubtless a coincidence that Before You Go follows Max Posner’s The Treasurer, which opened the Miners season. This, too, is about a frail, elderly woman and her children. One of her sons is forced to take control of his mother’s finances, but because she deserted the family when he was thirteen, his anger and resentment are still on a fierce boil. In both plays, the mother is played by fine local actor Billie McBride.
But the similarities end there, perhaps because Posner is still in his early thirties, while Ashton brings an older and more seasoned perspective to his topic. And while in The Treasurer the relationships among family members are strained, Ashton’s fictional family is deeply loving.
Directing Before You Go, hearing his words in the mouths of his actors, was both “exhilarating and troubling,” Ashton says. “There are parts where there are laughs and parts where we tug at heartstrings and parts where I think I’m saying something significant. Also opportunities to feel insecure and that you’re not dealing well.
“This cast is magnificent,” he adds. “I didn’t hold auditions. I just called people and said, ‘Hey would you be interested. If you are I’ll send you the script.’ It’s a powerhouse group.” In addition to McBride, Before You Go features Eric Mather, Missy Moore, and Damon Guerassio.
We wondered if, like Posner’s play, Ashton’s might be somewhat autobiographical.
“It’s a little bit tricky to talk about,” he responds. “A lot of it has the feel of the ways my family used to relate to each other as I was growing up. We were close, had disagreements, loved each other and had a great facility for poking fun at each other. That stuff came out in the process of writing this. But it’s hard to speak to in specifics. A lot was just the feel of it. The mom character is fairly close to my actual mom in terms of her feisty attitude. You start from what you experience and think you know and let the creative necessities carry it from there.”
Ashton worked collaboratively with his cast, welcoming feedback about “what feels real to you, what doesn’t, what makes sense. We’ve had some wonderful discussions and differences of opinion that continue to be resolved. There are lines and actions that come from them.” He also consulted with Christy Montour-Larson, one of Denver’s most respected directors, and received a long list of helpful questions and ideas from her. The result was some changes during the rehearsal process: Two characters were eliminated, Ashton says, and the way a gun was used changed.
In December 2019, Ashton was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome. He was, he says, losing feeling in his leg, and his partner, Abby Apple Boes, recognizing that it might be a serious problem, urged him to get medical help. (Apple Boes is currently starring as Rosemary Clooney in the Cherry Creek Theatre’s Tenderly. The run ends August 29.) Subsequently, he was in the hospital for eleven days over Christmas and New Year’s. And though “I can’t point to any conscious awareness of mortality” while working on Before You Go, he says, “It had to be there. The play is about the mother dying.”
“But,” he adds hastily, “it’s also got a ton of laughs.”