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Toni Press-Coffman

Local playwright gets back in 'Touch'

Tucson actress and playwright Toni Press-Coffman has had a busy spring with Etcetera, Live Theatre Workshop’s late night branch. First she starred in their production of “Wit” in the physically and emotionally demanding lead role as a dying cancer patient (“Appreciating Death Through ‘Wit’”). Now Etcetera is staging her play, “Touch,” which first premiered 13 years ago in Tucson.

“Touch” has gone on to productions in New York, Los Angeles, the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville, and in Europe. (I reviewed the premiere of “Touch” back then for another publication – see “Stellar Discoveries”.)

The concept and text of “Touch” remains engaging. However, this successful Etcetera production is also due to the outstanding acting by Christopher Johnson as main character Kyle Kalke.

Despite its contemporary setting, “Touch” is as old as Greek mythology: boy meets girl – boy loses girl – boy goes through hell to get her back.

Here, Kyle is an astronomer. He opens the play with a long homage to Zoe, his wacky but lovable high school sweetheart whom he married, her extrovert peculiarities rescuing him from a dull life of nerdy isolation. Zoe is powerful and idiosyncratic and we look forward to meeting her ourselves, but that never happens. After endearing her to us, Kyle, with barely controlled rage, explains that Zoe disappeared one evening on a quick shopping errand. When her body was found, she had been raped and murdered.

The rest of “Touch” is the hell that Kyle goes through to reclaim Zoe’s memory. Emotionally and physically isolated by his nature, his mind is in danger of collapsing in on itself, caught in a loop of endless horror. Kyle’s guide back is a prostitute who allows him to slowly recover the sensual world that Zoe had opened up to him.

With “Touch,” Press-Coffman deliberately breaks two fundamental rules of play writing. First is “Don’t open with a monologue.” This is obvious – the audience has no emotional attachment to the character yet. There is no context to evaluate the information in the monologue. So of course, she starts off “Touch” with an immense monologue that provides the play’s back story before shifting to present action.

And there Press-Coffman also successfully the breaks the “show, don’t tell” rule. “Touch” has minimal action – the discovery of Zoe’s body, a confrontation with Zoe’s sister. Mostly “Touch” delivers its narrative through monologue or Kyle’s discussions with either his lifelong friend Bennie, or Kathleen, the patient hooker. As Press-Coffman slyly presents the details – the police investigation, disposition of Zoe’s effects, more memories of their time together – Kyle’s nearly flat affect, with bouts of rage, shows the core dilemma, how terribly close he is to the edge.

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Christopher Johnson is also the artistic director for Etcetera and has appeared in a number of their productions, including “Jailbait” “Thom Pain (Based on Nothing),” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” He has also appeared in plays at Invisible Theatre and Winding Road Theatre locally. Starting out his song of Zoe with complete reserve, he develops a barely suppressed twitchy energy that we know can’t be good. Eventually Kyle breaks through his emotionally distant state (Thanks, Kathleen!), able to accept the pain of embracing Zoe’s memory, able to engage the world again as a functioning human being.

Johnson’s own embrace and mastery of the Kyle character is a joy to watch.

Rounding out the cast are Ryan Butler as Bennie, Emilee Foster as Zoe’s sister, Serena, and Julia Matias as Kathleen. Butler makes a fine sidekick, sympathetic, exasperated, supportive. Foster brings a seething anger and desperation as Zoe’s sister.

Matias gives Kathleen a world-weary ‘whatever’ attitude, in her own way as wary of allowing feelings as Kyle. In my original review, I noted that the hooker with a heart of gold character seemed clichéd. Having been workshopped, Kathleen now becomes a better and more essential foil for Kyle, especially with Matias’ physically hot but emotionally cool performance.

Glen Coffman, Toni’s husband and well-familiar with the play, directs, as well as handling set/lighting/sound. The minimal stage with starry backdrop allows for ease changing out for this late night presentation following Live Theatre Workshop’s current show, “Death and the Maiden.” The foreshortened space puts Johnson up close and personal as he struggles to come through this nightmare.

As a late-night presentation, “Touch” will require some seeking-out. It’s worth the effort.

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Live Theatre Workshop

Julia Matias and Christopher Johnson discuss life in 'Touch.'

Youtube Video

If you go

  • What: “Touch” presented by Etcetera, the late night arm of Live Theatre Workshop
  • Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway.
  • When: Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 p.m. through April 21.
  • Tickets: $10 at the door. Reservations at 327-4242 and online at www.etceteralatenight.com.