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Theater Review:

"TOUCH," Phoenix Theatre at Victory Gardens Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

In an earlier conversation I had with Bryan Fonseca, artistic director of the Indianapolis-based Phoenix Theatre, he noted how this progressive 18-year-old troupe had "mastered the smaller space." Intimate storytelling is one of Phoenix’s main goals, and its production of Toni Press-Coffman’s "Touch" at Victory Gardens Theater’s small upstairs studio underscores this noble objective.

The award-winning play, which was one of six plays chosen for full-length productions at the prestigious 2001 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, exists mainly in the mind of lead character Kyle Kalke – an introverted astronomer whose vivacious wife, Zoe, is raped and murdered. This brutal backdrop serves as the playwright’s method for exploring unexpected loss and unbearable grief. By setting up complementary dichotomies – Kyle’s scientific rigor and Zoe’s instinctual (or more astrological) spontaneity – Press-Coffman essentially demonstrates how a balance of both extremes is necessary for emotional survival in the face of inexplicable tragedy.

A play set in one’s psyche lends itself to a natural, almost hyper, intimacy. And director Fonseca successfully treads across a seemingly paradoxical dramatic terrain of solid conviction and ineffability. Despite the play’s copious talking at the audience, Fonseca manages to leave breathing room for those quiet places that transcend articulation. In the process, he gently draws us into Kyle’s heart and head.

Physics, physiology and psychology swirl around Kyle’s tormented universe as he recounts how he met Zoe (with her crazy hats and all) in physics class; how she opened up his world; how the two married and made new discoveries (good and bad) about each other; and how they continued to celebrate their love, with family members reenacting their first meeting, during their anniversaries on Thanksgiving. But, following their sixth anniversary party on Thanksgiving, Zoe ran out to the supermarket and never came home.

We later learn that two men abducted her. After their vicious crime, they buried her under a heap of sacred soil on an Indian reservation – forcing Kyle and his loyal medical-doctor friend, Bennie Locasto, to dig up Zoe’s body. At one point, Kyle must endure the humiliation of being a suspect in Zoe’s murder.

Kyle plunges into his own black hole of despair, seeking solace in the extremely cliched figure of a hooker with a heart of gold. He also cuts off all ties with Zoe’s family because the pain is too unbearable. And, during this crisis, Bennie falls in love with Zoe’s level-headed sister, Serena. The latter pairing is no doubt meant to show the cyclical and eternal nature of love. But, ultimately, their relationship pulls us out of Kyle’s intensely internal world. Bennie and Serena seem to exist in a separate play.

In fact, "Touch’s" structure poses the greatest challenge for the audience and the artists. It begins as a one-man show, with the effective but too manic and tightly wound Aaron Roman Weiner as Kyle sharing with us – for what seems like an eternity -- his attraction to Zoe and subsequent romance. Weiner captures Kyle’s nervous self-deprecation via a self-consciously grounded body posture and painfully clenched fists. Occasionally, when he refers to Bennie or Serena, the actors portraying these characters seated in front of the stage silently stand up – also an awkward arrangement.

And, although the fact that we never see Zoe may be its own statement about the anonymity of murders across the country, it’s a bit frustrating not to really see her character unfold before us.

But as the story moves forward -- and especially when Michael Shelton’s dynamic and believable Bennie gets into the stage action -- the play takes on more profound and insightful shape. In both scientific and human terms, we truly become invested in Kyle’s need "to give over to connection." Many of his monologues are quite moving and multidimensional.

Then the playwright veers off into a creative void again, particularly when she slowly reveals the details of Zoe’s disappearance and murder. When Kyle meets Zoe’s killers face-to-face and interrogates them about her final moments, the drama threatens to meander into the realm of cloying contrivance. Press-Coffman also does not develop her female characters. Kelli Walker fares better as the intelligent and even-handed Serena, but Beverly Roche gets stuck in a glaring stereotype as Kathleen, the compassionate prostitute. These women too obviously represent female types rather than flesh-and-blood beings.

But Fonseca’s astute direction, paired with his ethereal scenic and lighting design, expands "Touch’s" reach into galaxies both infinitely outward and infinitely internal.•

Phoenix Theatre’s production of "Touch" runs through December 30 at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $20. Call 773-871-3000.

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