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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 24, 2016

Pete McElligott
Photo by Nikhil Saboo

"Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break."

These lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth could well have been written about Kyle, the anguished central character in Toni Press-Coffman's Touch, a tender and humane play about love, loss, mourning, and a search for meaning, opening tonight in a well-acted and, yes, touching production at 59E59 Theaters.

Through most of the play, first produced in 2000, Kyle (Pete McElligott) is encased in a self-protective psychological wall he has erected in order to protect himself from the crushing pain brought on by the sudden and violent death of his wife of six years, Zoe, who "went out one night and didn't come back."

And while Kyle does not allow himself to feel the full brunt of the upheaval, he is willing to talk to us though the safe barrier of the "fourth wall" as he completes the task of boxing up the remains of his and Zoe's life together. It is a tribute to Kyle that, even though we never meet Zoe, he is able to conjure her up so vividly, she seems to be onstage the whole time. In a richly-detailed opening monologue, we learn how the two of them met as students in high school. Kyle was smitten at the first sight of Zoe as she waltzed into his physics class, looked around, and announced, "I am so in the wrong room!" Theirs was the classic match between the brainy, nearly-friendless nerd and the free-spirited popular girl he would marry just a couple of years later.

Gradually, as Kyle fills in the details, we learn that he and Zoe did have their ups and downs in the time they were together, and we do see that while he deeply loved her, he did not worship at her feet. There is some anger and jealousy mixed in with the sorrow, and Kyle's behavior towards the play's other characters is rocky as he continues to serve the savage god of grief. He brushes off his closest friend Bennie (Amadeo Fusca) and his sister-in-law Serena (Emily Batsford), and he finds his only surcease in anonymous sex with a prostitute (warmly portrayed by Katrina Lenk).

Touch, directed by Nathaniel Shaw, is at its best when it is fully focused on Kyle as a struggling and realistically complicated, not always pleasant individual. Too much is made, for instance, of his professional life as an astronomer and of the awe he feels for the great and vast unknown universe, where "science and the spirit meet." Such musings allow for the playwright to display flights of poetry, but Kyle really isn't a poet, despite his avowed fondness for Keats. He is a confused and battered human being, trying his best to get by with a little help from his loyal friends, even if none of them seems half so real (to him or to us) as Zoe. The power of the play lies in its depiction of Kyle's efforts to gain a secure foothold for himself while safely maintaining a fully intact memory of Zoe; both are in jeopardy throughout. Under Nathaniel Shaw's direction, Pete McElligott does a splendid job of bringing the devastated Kyle fully to life and gives us good cause to join him through the long, sometimes meandering journey out of darkness.

Through September 4
59E59 Theater C, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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