Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 8, 2011


Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through: August 14, 2011
by Barbara Stroup

“Touch(ed)” is a fine two act play that explores the difficulty of psychiatric decision making when there is conflict between professionally-prescribed care and a common sense intuitive, approach.

But that clinical description fails to describe the well-crafted drama presented here: playwright Bess Wohl places two sisters, Kay and Emma, and Kay’s caring boyfriend in an isolated cabin. Kay, the caretaker for 10 years, transports “Penelope” (or Emma, or Madeline) out of institutional care for a week’s trial in the real world. Boyfriend Billy comes along to help.

Wohl balances drama and comedy perfectly, and has an uncommon ear for dialogue that is believable. These three characters are so accessible that they could be a friend or relative of any audience member. Yet their development has multidimensional complexity with each changing as they each see a more nuanced view the world.

The actors – Michael Chernus, Lisa Joyce, and Merritt Wever – in inhabit their roles fully and live in Wohl’s dialogue with compelling comfort. Sensitive to each other, both laugh lines and serious lines work to move the piece forward at an appropriate pace. Without making a caricature of mentally ill people, Wever shows enough expression, gesture and posture to recognize the illness and effects of medications. In Act I, Emma dislikes any touch, and stares at the spot on her sleeve that Kay’s fingers forgetfully inhabited for a micro-second. By the climax, she is reaching out herself. Joyce goes from chirpy, nervous and controlling to angry, burnt-out exasperation and finally to subdued acceptance. Chernus possesses an intrinsically interesting vocal quality that he uses with skill for both comedy and pathos; he was an instantly likable Billy. His character sees the artist in Emma but also supports the controlling caretaker in Kay; Chernus’ interpretation makes all of this work.

The set shows both the inside and outside of the cabin, and a dramatic change in its position contributes to the play’s climactic ending. These are three characters that try to do their best as they deal with problems anyone could face. The viewer feels enriched by having met them.