by Bess Wohl
directed by Trip Cullman
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Theatre
August 3-14, 2011
Scenic Design – Andromache Chalfant
Costume Design – Emily Rebholz
Lighting Design – David Weiner
Sound Design – Jill BC DuBoff
Production Stage Manager – Hannah Cohen
Production Manager – Jeremiah Thies
Billy – Michael Chernus
Kay – Lisa Joyce
Emma – Merritt Wever
Touch(ed) is a terrifically effective and well-constructed play by a young actress and playwright who has managed to gather an impressive amount of experience in some very good places: after Harvard College and the Yale School of Drama, she has spent four previous seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Company. Director Trip Cullman [third WTF season] is a Yale School of Drama graduate, as is Emily Rebholz, costume designer. Andromache Chalfant hails from Tisch, and actor Michael Chernus [second WTF season] from Juilliard. There was a tightness and consistency about the various elements of this show that made me wonder about the connections among the principal creative forces. There is something seriously encouraging about such a successful creation coming from top Northeastern schools. It doesn’t always happen.
In Touch(ed) Ms. Wohl tells the story of two sisters, one of whom, Kay—attractive, bright, and energetic—lives a seemingly enviable life in New York, teaching school and enjoying the company of a devoted, talented boy friend, a writer, whom she considers to be a genius. Kay’s older sister, Emma, has suffered from serious schizophrenia since childhood, and she has been institutionalized for some years, following repeated suicide attempts. In earlier days, before her medication made it impossible, she wrote poetry with some seriousness. (Emma—almost—celebrates her thirtieth birthday during the action, so this is a play about young people.) Kay’s boyfriend, Billy, is no less appealing than she is. Already enjoying some success, he has hit a writer’s block, but he is good-natured about it and volunteers to assist Kay in looking after Emma, during what is supposed to be a brief experimental stay away from her institution at a cabin, presumably somewhere in the Adirondacks. The play begins with Kay and Billy sorting through kitchen utensils, removing anything potentially lethal from the cabin. Later, as he gets to know Emma, between the usual obstacles to communication which occur with a very ill person on heavy medication, Billy begins to find her extremely interesting. He reads one of her poems, which she has had tattooed onto her abdomen, and she makes frank, unflattering comments about his own work and arouses his respect. A connection is formed. Kay has to return to the City to teach, and, Billy offers to stay in the cabin with her for a longer period, rather than have her return to the mental hospital. Billy has shown some carelessness already, and it takes some convincing for Kay to agree to it, but finally she does.
Act II begins after a five-week absence. Kay has been making the most of her relief from caregiving, and she returns, nicely turned out for city life, with a bag of groceries. Billy is industriously working on his novel in a well-organized cubby hole in the corner of the sitting room. Her discovery of the changes that have taken place in the cabin begin with Billy’s rejection of much of the contents of the bag. They’re eating organic, now, as he says. Emma is not sleeping until five in the afternoon any more; rather she is out jogging around the lake. Billy informs Kay that Emma is a natural born athlete. Emma returns, appearing much improved. Her movements are now lithe and active. She talks animatedly and shows a keen sense of humor. Emma has been cooking, and cooking well. Kay is totally shocked by all this. The change itself—and Emma’s new independence—are too much for her. Disbelief comes only secondarily, as a defence mechanism. She has to go outside to vent her emotions.
Meanwhile, Billy and Emma converse like normal people who share a house and a life, and, after deciding what to do about Kay’s immediate reaction, they decide to tell her some important news they have. Of course we assume that the news is that they are in a relationship with each other, but that isn’t it. When Kay returns, Emma take the initiative, musters Billy to her side and announces that she has stopped taking her medications. This even greater shock sends Kay into a panic. Billy manages to prevent her from phoning Emma’s physicians, and they settle into an evening of Scrabble and word-games, echoing the plays on words that opened the performance, as Kay and Billy sorted through the utensils. First Billy falls asleep, then Kay on top of Billy, and Emma finally realizes that she has lost her audience, stops talking, and goes up to bed. Eventually Kay wakes up to find Emma gone. Billy tells her it’s all right, but eventually Kay gets up to check on Emma. Billy meanwhile gets up and toys around with working. When Kay returns, the tension over the situation builds, and she becomes hysterical, screaming about what a burden caring for Emma has been all her life. In response, Billy takes his laptop and goes to a local café to calm down. Emma comes down, awakened by the sound of his car, and the sisters have a warm, intimate talk in which much is resolved. Emma sends Kay off to patch things up with Billy. At this point the single scene change in the play occurs, with a dramatic pulling back of the set, replaced by a plain set with a café table, where, in this final scene, Billy and Kay meet.
I rarely summarize the plot of a play, even if it is an unfamiliar or new one, but in this case, the thread serves well as an armature on which to relate the variety of responses and feelings aroused by Touch(ed). In the first place, the audience laughs quite a lot, as intended. We also feel a good deal of warmth and sympathy towards these nice, intelligent, well-intentioned twenty-somethings—even Emma, who is demanding and manipulative. (It is an encouraging sign that neither the playwright nor the director nor the actress is tempted to create a cloud of pathos around her. Emma is a tough cookie. Sick people, especially the mentally ill, have their way of taking charge, and her sister Kay has evidently been in her thrall for many years. Yet we see that mostly through Billy’s unravelling of the spell, which lays the groundwork for Kay’s outburst towards the end.) Of course we feel sympathy for Emma as well, especially when Billy’s “cure” offers her some hope of recovery.
What is most original about Touch(ed) is the way puts the best qualities of its characters, especially Kay and Billy, front and center. Bess Wohl constantly sets up expectations—and perhaps the audience as well—of the obvious pitfalls, mostly rooted in the potential human shortcomings of the characters, but she consistently circumvents them. This play is not a critique of human motivations: it focuses rather on human limitations in the face of the extreme demands life can place on one. Kay does her best for Emma—in the box—and so does Billy—out of the box. Service suits him well, and, in bringing all his imagination and intelligence to rehabilitating his charge, he cures himself of his writer’s block and progresses as an artist. There is nothing preachy in Wohl’s presentation of this, and the characters’ final encounter with their human limitations does nothing to undercut their good will. When Kay falls apart, she is shrill and harsh, but no one could blame her, except for the unfortunate time and place it happened.
Much of the time, I think that we’re all fortunate to be living in a time when many ailments, limitations of the individual, and much suffering can be remedied or helped. Many people believe in this and find successful solutions in exercise, improving their diet, meditation, behavior modifcation programs, etc. This brings a certain optimism to their outlook and a willingness to expend considerable effort to achieve a cure or improvement. On the other hand, believing that we have some control over our limitations deprives us of the dignity of the tragic in our lives and can seem shallow and narcissistic. While many people are able to apply these self-help tools to their situations with better results than years of psychoanalysis, the banal terminology and thought behind these methods can make one yearn to read one of Freud or Jung’s more substantial essays as an antidote. Emma may have gone beyond the clichés most of us use to understand our psyches and interrelationships, but Billy and Kay talk like the rest of us. In these parts, between Brooklyn, and Williamstown, and Boston, and other places like them, it is easy enough to find a partner for a conversation about meditation, a rant against the drug industry, or a paean to organic food. For a playwright, it is a delicate job to bring all this on the stage and to make the stuff our own daily lives amusing, rather than annoying or depressing. Again, the playwright, the director, and the actors, I think, deserve the credit for their success in using the familiarity of the characters discourse inviting, rather than off-putting or ridiculous.
Ms. Wohl was certainly ambitious in attempting to combine realism with a more stylized dramaturgy in her play. The main space of the set is realistic down to the smallest detail, thanks to some serious expeditions to the Goodwill and yard sales, but, towards its outer limits, it shifts into abstraction. A wonderful pattern of logs around it suggests both the construction of the cabin and the forest surrounding it. At the top of the set, a dormer window—that of Emma’s room—looks out at the scene of the action. The light in it makes it constantly present, whether Emma is there or not.
There is no doubt that Touch(ed) is an admirable piece of work, and one can’t really fault it, if much of the effort that went into it remains apparent. If Ms. Wohl keeps at her craft in a serious way, she will eventually write a seemingly effortless play. As it was, Touch(ed) was engaging, absorbing, and affecting throughout. I also believe that it would stand up well in reading as well, or in a performance that was inferior to the truly outstanding one it has received at WTF. The actors and the director all knew what was necessary to bring it off.
Merritt Wever was almost uncannily convincing as Emma, worn out by years of living with her illness and her medications, and her performance as the transformed Emma was a tour de force. She was still not quite like the rest of us, but much much better and able to enjoy herself, between the brilliance of her own mind and Kay and Billy. If they fall asleep, it is not hard to see how her mental activity and chattering has worn them out.
Lisa Joyce played as a bright young woman who is as attractive in character as she is in her appearance. It is only later on that we realize that Kay, once she has passed through her crisis, is a trifle ordinary, beyond her defensive reliance on conventional wisdom. There is a bitter irony in her decision to go to medical school at the end. As a performer, Ms. Joyce had an impressive grasp of movement and language, although a few times she failed to project, when sitting down.
Michael Chernus has to be one of the most brilliant young actors we have today. His Billy was fully-rounded, complex, sympathique, and very funny. Chernus seemed to dig his way into the language and meaning of his lines, so that they seemed to come directly from him—the latest and best in method acting. I saw him perform at the Atlantic Theater Company a couple of months ago in two playlets in the first segment of 10 x 25, a series of short plays by prominent contemporary playwrights, and his work made a strong impression on me then. (Williams’ Omar Sangare also distinguished himself in the show. In fact 10 x 25 was a medley of some of New York’s best actors, some prominent, some obscure, so Mr. Chernus stood out in some very strong company. One of his plays was a story by Ethan Coen about patricide and retribution set among southern rednecks. I couldn’t help finding something condescending and Princetonian in this, as well put together as it was. The other was about an intersexual medical examination, which must have been as painful to act in as it was to watch. It is a great pleasure to see Chernus in a full-length play that has some real merit.