Touch is a mesmerizing fusion of monologue and Curious Incident-style concept drama on an intimate scale. A fascinating tale of a great love crushed by a violent act, it’s part love story, part murder mystery, and a tender dissection of the human spirit subjected to horrors known and unknown. Artful humor, and flashes – in one case literally – of humble yet cosmic grace relieve the sadness.
Lead actor Pete McElligott carries almost the entire first act as Kyle, a young man desultorily and distractedly packing cartons while he tells the story of the love of his life. He recounts how he met his beloved Zoe in high school, how they fell in love, married, and made a life together. But we see quickly, without him needing to say so, that something terrible has happened and Kyle is now alone. As the monologue rolls on, my mind kept leaping ahead, wondering when a “payoff” would arrive, and when the other characters would appear.
But with marvelous skill under the sure hand of director Nathaniel Shaw, McElligott and playwright Toni Press-Coffman continually pull us back in, and back in, and back in again, salving any sense of impatience with the soft precise touch of Kyle’s words. When another character finally does appear on stage, suddenly magically corporeal as if conjured from Kyle’s narrative, it’s a satisfying shock.
From there, and throughout Act II, the play becomes a deftly constructed and emotionally wrenching game of Jenga, gingerly stacking its blocks of story just as Kyle vacantly puts his packing cartons one on top of another. Aiding him sometimes in this slow, almost aimless wrapping-up is his best friend (and only childhood buddy) Bennie, played by Amadeo Fusca, an actor best known as a comic but showing sharp dramatic focus here.
Dramatic focus and entirely believable points of conflict make this slow-moving story grab hold for its full two hours. Kyle is an astronomer, a scientist not only by profession but by nature, while Zoe, whom we never meet in person, believes in astrology and a vaguely defined “spirit” that Kyle, for the sake of domestic harmony, pretends to accept. Kyle’s romance has repercussions on Benny’s possessive nature that neither friend could have anticipated. And when, after Zoe is gone, Kyle shuts out her family, he embitters the grief of her sister Serena (a subtly effective Emily Batsford), who finds solace in unexpected quarters.
Most interesting of all is how Kyle constructs, Jenga-like, a substitute object of affection out of Kathleen, a hard-bitten but sensitive prostitute. A smart, pitch-perfect, funny performance by Katrina Lenk (Broadway’s Once) makes this potentially stock role not only appealing but rich and complex. There’s an especially affecting irony in how Kyle opens up new worlds to her with binoculars pointed at the night sky after his own world has been violently stripped of all meaning.
A picture-book magic elevates the story when dual scenes play out simultaneously with Kyle as the nexus. This takes talent and skill of a high order. Both are alive in McElligott’s performance, Shaw’s direction, and Press-Coffman’s script. Crafty music and sound (Julian Evans) and lighting (Carl Wiemann) create a heady atmosphere with a fairy-tale tinge on Craig Napoliello’s simple wooden set with its single dark secret. Kristin Isola’s perfectly attuned costumes embody the characters as clearly as do the dialogue and performances, especially the contrast between the two women’s.