Stellar Discoveries

Local Playwright Toni Press-Coffman Puts Some Heavenly Touches Into Her Latest Effort.

By Dave Irwin

SOMETIMES LOVE means you don't get the chance to say you're sorry. Local playwright Toni Press-Coffman gives us one such cautionary tale in her latest play, Touch. On one level, it's an exploration of nerds reaching in and finding their emotions. On a deeper level, it's a story about finding and losing the love of your life, and how one man reconnects after that love is taken from him. And into the bargain, the playwright effectively questions the philosophical stance that the cosmos is cold and uncaring.

The play was developed by Press-Coffman with lead actor Jonathan Ingbretson. Ingbretson is familiar to local audiences from his work with Invisible Theatre, Live Theatre Workshop and the defunct Upstairs Theatre Company. He's been busy lately, playing in Quintessential Productions' Misalliance; Press-Coffman's recent work for Borderlands Theatre, Two Days of Grace at Middleham; and traveling to Minneapolis in April for a staged reading of Touch at the Playwrights Center's Hothouse Festival. Although he had a hand in creating the main character around whom this universe revolves, the role of Kyle Kalke is too juicy to keep others away. It will be interesting as this play becomes more widely produced, as it deserves to be, to see how others handle its massive monologue structure.

Review The play opens with a 20-minute solo by Kyle, a geeky astronomer talking about how he met his wonderfully wacky wife, Zoe, when she accidentally wandered into his high-school physics class. It's a meeting he now believes was a miracle, since they were so different. Ingbretson describes their courtship and six years of marriage, laying the foundation for his introverted character and her zany extroversion. But as we increasingly appreciate the love he felt for Zoe, and her vital role in his self-discovery, we also realize tragedy is going to rip apart this little love fest.

Ingbretson's passionate description endears Zoe to us; and though we're really looking forward to meeting her, we find she isn't just dead, but murdered. Commendably, Press-Coffman isn't content with letting Zoe merely die. The murder, its investigation and Kyle's description of his eventual confrontation with her killers gives a rich dramatic texture to what might otherwise have been merely maudlin.

Patrick Burke plays Kyle's childhood best friend, Benny LaCosta. Although we meet him in adulthood, trying to assuage Kyle's grief, we get revealing glimpses of the two of them growing up, as they reenact key moments of their awkward adolescence. The tricky technique of using flashbacks within a flashback is handled adroitly. We are never confused as to where we are in the overall chronology, and each flashback expands our understanding of the relationships between the characters.

We also meet Zoe's older sister Serena (played by Christina Walker), an early childhood education teacher who's anything but schoolmarmish. She screams obscenities in the police station and teaches kids how to act like lunatics (note the astronomical tie-in). As Kyle withdraws to rediscover his own emotions through rutting sessions with a prostitute named Kathleen (Erika L. Cossitt), Benny and Serena, after years of casual association, finally discover each other for the first time. It adds a nice spin to the tale, and eases what had been a relentless onstage focus on Ingbretson's character. In the end, nature reveals itself in a way that underlines the theme of synchronicity and demonstrates that perhaps the universe is not as unfeeling as it may sometimes appear.

Touch is not without its flaws, however. The role of the heart-of-gold hooker is little more than a device, for example. Of course, hookers make a stunning, but ultimately bad, impression at astronomical society gatherings, so the reinvigorated Kyle dumps her and heads for Hawaii with his remaining fortune. Cossitt is somewhat wooden in the contrived role, gesturing choreographically where the rest of the cast seems to flow naturally. Her believability is further undermined by the fact that her supposedly street-smart character engages in language and dialogue almost indistinguishable from that of the doctor, astronomer and school teacher.

Indeed, Press-Coffman's language is at times too formal and flowery, making us self-conscious of the play at the expense of its characters. Unless a writer forces them to, people don't really say things like "our hope dwindled," or "the weather was tranquil"; and they use contractions like "I wasn't" instead of saying without fail "I was not." Press-Coffman does follow a very well-thought-out narrative though, leading us carefully on our route of discovery.

Touch is nicely assembled by Damesrocket cohort and director, Caroline Reed. In particular, Susan Rojas' sparse set deserves mention. The action mostly takes place on twin circular raised platforms that resemble binary stars orbiting each other, with tiny lights like constellations underneath.

Touch is well worth seeing. The writing by Press-Coffman, quibbles aside, represents maturity and consistency. The technical support all works well. The acting is very good, with Ingbretson turning in an inspired performance. In the end, you will believe a nerd can love.

Touch continues through May 15 at Damesrocket Theatre, 125 E. Congress St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $10, with discounts for seniors and students. For information and reservations, call 623-7852. TW

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