Fear, empathy, love and loss are common themes explored in theater but few scripts stoke those emotions like “Prelude to a Kiss.”
On stage at Whidbey Island Center for Arts in Langley through June 22, the play begins with a whirlwind romance and wedding and ends with a resounding statement about the meaning of unconditional love.
“Prelude to a Kiss” is a 1988 play by Craig Lucas; its title is taken from the 1938 torch song of the same title by Duke Ellington.
Ty Molbak and Jessica Baxter, playing young newlyweds, Peter and Rita, shine in their first WICA lead roles.
Baxter is a recent transplant to Whidbey Island from the Kansas City area. Growing up, Molbak spent his summers on Whidbey, studying dance and acting. He enrolled in camp sessions at Whidbey Children’s Theater and then taught there. His last time on the WICA stage was in “Seussical the Musical,” in which he played Horton the Elephant.
James Hinkley adroitly plays the role known simply as Old Man. But he’s even better playing a young woman trapped in an old man’s body.
“Prelude to a Kiss” hinges on a fairy tale of a magical moment at Peter and Rita’s wedding reception. An old man passing by innocently asks to kiss the young and beautiful bride and then goes on his way.
Moments later, Rita’s contorted and comical facial expressions indicate something’s awry. On their Jamaica honeymoon, she continues to seem a little off, even to her new husband whom she married only six weeks after meeting him.
Director Deana Duncan calls the play a typical boy-meets-girl story with a major magical twist that tests the faith and bond of love.
“Prelude to a Kiss is about how we show up in our lives, how we love and deal with fear and loss,” said Duncan, who became WICA’s artistic director last year after being on staff since 2000. “It’s a sweet and funny romantic comedy, but at its heart this play is a profound statement on the fragility of life and how every minute matters.”
Peter and Rita get together at the nightclub where she tends bar. She reveals herself to Peter as free-spirited but pessimistic, a Communist and the only child of affluent, doting parents.
Peter is conservative, works for a Chicago publication firm and is absent of any relatives.
Molbak acts as narrator to his own story in spotlighted break out scenes, speaking directly to the audience. Somehow he figures out his wife and the Old Man must have swapped souls during that innocent kiss. But how he figures this out is a little hard to figure out.
Nonetheless, it leads him to search for the Old Man whom he learns is dying of lung cancer. Rita, meanwhile — well, at least the physical body of Rita — leaves Peter to go live with her parents.
While some actors might shy away from the bizarre challenge of switching souls with another actor, Baxter was all in.
“After reading the script I became literally obsessed to play such an outrageous role,” Baxter said.
Hinkley calls the soul-swapping stunt a lesson in soulmates.
The play explores the reality of loving a person who changes and how one deals with the change. Hinkley pondered in an interview: “What is it that really attracts us to another person? Is it just the beauty of the shell they inhabit or is it truly the person inside?”
Actors Robert Atkinson and Suzi Dixon play Dr. Marshall and Mrs. Boyle, Rita’s somewhat ditsy parents. Gail Liston plays Aunt Dorothy and Brian Plebanek is her husband, Uncle Fred. Ethan Berkley rounds out the cast by playing every role left over — Tay, Tom, Minister, Waiter — with great panache and a wonderful strut.
Molbak, who lives in New York City, acted with some of the same cast members as a kid; Duncan was his director back then, too.
“I remember admiring Ethan Berkley in particular,” he said. “He had, and still has, such a contagious sense of humor.”
Although the romantic comedy is laden with life’s heavy topics — aging, death, marriage vows — to name a few, it’s a mix that resonates.
“It will make you stop and realize how precious life is,” Baxter said, “and how little time we have to live it.”
— “Prelude to a Kiss” performances are 7:30 p.m. on June 14, 15, 21, 22; 2 p.m. matinee is June 16; WICA, 565 Camano Ave., Langley. Tickets: Adult $22, senior $18, youth $15, military $18 and matinee $15. Purchase tickets by visiting wicaonline.org or call the WICA Box Office at 360-221-8268.