It's amazing that in a city the size of Tucson, our theater community gives us so many opportunities to see newer plays—sometimes even penned by actual Tucson denizens.
Currently, Etcetera (the late-night group associated with Live Theatre Workshop) and Borderlands Theater have a couple of newer plays on the boards. And it's a delight that, of the two, the one by the local playwright—Toni Press-Coffman's Touch, at Etcetera—is the best.
Touch is almost 10 years old, but has never been produced in Tucson. Astronomer nerd Kyle Kalke (Christopher Johnson) tells us—a bit too long-windedly—about his two great passions: physics and the mysteries of the universe; and his improbable romance with Zoe, a free-spirited young lady who, after several years of blissful marriage, leaves for a brief trip to the store and never returns.
Her disappearance, and confirmation that she has met with foul play, leaves Kyle bereft. He tries to lose himself in his work. He won't speak to any of Zoe's family, and uncharacteristically takes up with a prostitute (played by Julia Matias), who is quite bemused with the young man she calls "John Sky." Although crushed and spiritless, Kyle is ever the student, and the cosmos has plenty to teach.
Press-Coffman herself is obviously taken with universal mysteries, and she allows Kyle to wax poetic as he communicates to us his heartfelt fascination; she also allows his love of Keats to add some additional poetic content. Johnson embraces this aspect of his character and gives us a very likable Kyle; we sympathize with his awkward struggles after Zoe's death. Press-Coffman and Johnson both deserve credit for creating such a fleshed-out portrait of Zoe, although we never see her.
There are some things that would make this play better. Kyle's opening expository speech is long—so long that it seems the play is actually a monologue. When another character makes an entrance, it almost feels like an abrupt change of convention. This character, Kyle's lifelong friend Bennie (Ryan Butler), is a welcome and vital catalyst for the action that follows, but his late introduction delays the fleshing out of his character; the delayed introduction of Zoe's sister Serena (Emilee Foster) also puts off her character's development. This becomes even more problematic when Bennie and Serena begin a romantic relationship as the play winds down.
Still, director Glen Coffman and his small cast give us a thought-provoking and captivating reading of Press-Coffman's play.
A potentially interesting play can sometimes be undermined by an overreaching effort.
I specify "potentially," because although Frances Ya-chu Cowhig's Lidless, now at Borderlands, has received numerous awards, and although her subject has heft and the impetus for some serious soul-searching, its plot twists and the extreme actions of its characters result in some over-the-top melodrama.
To make things worse, director Eva Zorrilla Tessler has chosen to heighten rather than play against this high drama, which results in an extended dramatic assault that ultimately leaves us lost and irritated rather than moved and thoughtful.
Cowhig's play begins in the Guantanamo prison, where questionable means of interrogation have been used on the Islamist prisoners thought to be culpable in the events of Sept. 11. In 2002, Alice (Alida Holguín Gunn) exercises a new form of interrogation designed to be particularly odious and humiliating to Muslim men. It's called "invasion of space by a female," and calls for women soldiers to taunt the men by touching them, even their sex organs; it's an act of disrespect so demeaning that, according to Muslim belief, the women soldiers actually spiritually damn the suspects. Soldier Alice does her job well and without doubts, but takes some sort of drug that helps numb her to the whole nasty business.
Fifteen years later, Alice has returned to civilian life with what seems like little memory of—or awareness of the consequences of—her time at Gitmo. She has married a reformed heroin addict, Lucas (David M. Felix), has an odd 14-year-old asthmatic daughter (Kristen Islas), and runs a flower shop in Texas. In one of the implausible plot twists, a former interrogation victim, Bashir (Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones), hears her on the radio in Canada where he lives, having been denied a return to his native Pakistan. He arrives at her flower shop, sick with hepatitis and needing a liver transplant. He thinks she owes him a piece of her liver, since they share the same blood type (this information was shared during their time at Gitmo), but she claims not even to remember her time in Gitmo.
The plot bends yet again—and we are scratching our collective heads at what the heck is happening here—as the story and production go into overdrive. For 25 minutes or so, blood gushes; bodies shake uncontrollably; a child suffocates; and Lucas beats back the urge to use. Alice embraces an inflatable globe, inhaling her daughter's breath, which had inflated it, as her world slowly deflates in her hands.
Cowhig wants to show us how the effects of the horrors of human warfare hold us captive long after the deeds are done. This is certainly an honorable goal; unthinkable human behavior sanctioned by wartime culture can surely have unthinkable consequences. But Cowhig's fine intentions get lost in a web of implausibility. Even though the cast members pour their hearts into telling this story, a bit of restraint might have allowed us to embrace it more, even with its melodramatic tendencies.
Borderlands is an asset to Tucson's theater scene, consistently choosing new plays that tackle issues important to our community and the world. But the group's artistic reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, and, unfortunately, Lidless overreaches rather painfully.