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Toward the end of Pioneer Theatre Company's world premiere production of Bess Wohl's "Touch(ed)," Kay asks Emma's psychiatrist, "How do you spend your life trying to explain the totally inexplicable?"
He replies, "We're all inexplicable, and all we can really do is try and touch each other."
Rarely has a play's title so completely defined its dynamic. The title's implications convey sharp, stinging insights into each of the characters: those who touch and those who are touched. At first, they seem clearly distinguished, but the boundaries blur as Wohl deepens her explorations into the intricate relationships that bind the three central characters together.
One of the pluses of this production is the joy of discovery: you think you have these people pegged; then suddenly everything shifts.
Kay is the strong, straightforward sister; she is full of energy and optimism and seems confident and self-sufficient. She has devoted the last decade of her life to taking care of her sister, Emma, who is brilliant, artistic, and disarmingly direct and perceptive. Unfortunately, she is also schizophrenic and suicidal and has spent most of that decade hospitalized. She is -- people might say --"touched."
Kay doesn't think Emma is getting better, so she decides on a daring experiment: removing her from the hospital for a week to see if a home environment will make a difference. Her boyfriend, Billy, offers to help. An initially successful author now struggling with writer's block, he has his own issues but feels an affinity with Emma, who writes poetry. The ancient Greeks, he tells Kay, said such people were touched by the gods and therefore special. He volunteers to stay on with Emma when Kay returns to work. When Kay returns a couple of weeks later, Emma is better, Billy is writing, and her role as caregiver is no longer clear.
"Touch(ed)" poses some provocative questions: How much can someone sacrifice for another without losing her own sense of self? Can having someone who believes in them cure people? What's the difference between inspiration and exploitation?
The performances are so natural, yet penetrating, that we feel closely connected to all the characters. Jennifer Joan Thompson subtly unmasks the anxiety and ambivalence that underlie Kay's ebullient exterior. Kelly Hutchinson switches instantly from the glazed, catatonic look of someone struggling to cope with reality to equally characteristic, piercing flashes of lucidity; her Emma is always unsettlingly off center. Alex Podulke gives his charming, supportive, inquisitive Billy a self-serving, manipulative edge. Dennis Parlato is authoritative, yet compassionate, as the doctor.
Charles Morey's direction is taut but relaxed; he lets the play unfold and find its own rhythm. Gary English's set --a shell of a cabin with trees visible through the walls -- and Phil Monat's moody, dark-around-the-edges lighting suggest both isolation and community. Pamela Scofield's costumes look low-key and lived in.
"Touch(ed)" should be depressing, but Wohl's wry humor and unerring sense of the way people talk and relate to each other keep it remarkably upbeat. This is an accomplished new play from a very promising playwright.
Bottom line: Pioneer Theatre Company's New Plays Initiative makes an impressive debut with "Touch(ed)," which is both insightful and moving.
When: Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Jan. 23, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Run time: Two and a half hours (including an intermission)
Tickets: Tickets are $22 to $40, with discounts for students and groups. Call 581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information. The show contains mature themes.