'Skin Tight’ shows love’s profundity

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What is love? You really want to know? Go see Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight at Renaissance Theaterworks.

Love is a wild beast, at least as Elizabeth and Tom, an Aussie farm couple, practice it. Leah Dutchin and Braden Moran dash onto the set at the start. They hop onto a raised platform about the size of a boxing ring. They square off and punch, parry, grapple and throw in convincing fight choreography devised by Maria Gillespie and Ryan Schabach, with Laura Gordon directing.

This goes on for some time, without a word spoken. At first, you worry about Elizabeth: Is this a rape scene? But after a few moments, the eager aggression in Dutchin’s expressive, open face and the sly smile on Moran’s mark this as rough play. They’re avid and skilled as athletes up for the game, but the term “final score” has a new meaning in this contest. Elizabeth comes out on top, in position to deliver the knockout blow. Instead, she delivers a long, delicious, panting, eagerly accepted kiss.

Love takes many guises and erotic strategies. Combat — highly physical but nevertheless mock — is theirs. Even more provocative foreplay involves the knife Moran uses to slice the apples the two devour at intervals.

Dutchin and Moran are so attractive, so committed physically and emotionally to their characters and so free in their expression that we don’t mind not knowing what’s going on for the first half of the play. On one hand, the youthful actors behave like especially lusty and imaginative newlyweds; on the other, they have the techniques and rituals that loving couples develop over years.

The action takes place on and around the square, which has a resilience suggesting stacked gym mats beneath a taught fabric cover. A claw-foot bathtub, filled with water that figures prominently in the play, stands at the upstage edge. Beyond that, a wide, bright landscape shines between the slats of a wall of barn wood. Jason Fassl’s set, lighting and projection hints at a farm. But the space reads as a sort of limbo, a sunny, wide-open nowhere with plenty of room for the lovers to romp.

Henderson assigned Tom and Elizabeth dangling, meandering conversations, some of them teasing run-ups to combat and love-making. Others of them reveal their histories. Little by little, we get a fix on this couple: Schoolmates in rural Australia in the 1930s, he’s off to war, comes home to her, they marry, work a farm, have a daughter.

I won’t be more specific because piecing things together on the fly is near the top of the long list of charms of watching this play. But I will say that as we grasp their histories, Skin Tight becomes a memory play. It also becomes increasingly poignant, but not sentimental or cloying. It becomes more purposeful as we come to understand the climactic nature of this particular conversation between these people.

As they demonstrate their love in many ways, not all of them sexual, we come to understand the profundity of that love. And while the play takes on more weight, it bears that weight lightly. Elizabeth and Tom don’t philosophize. They live.

Gordon has led her actors to an authentic place with Elizabeth and Tom. Dutchin and Moran wrestle with the virtuosity of strong, physical people who’ve had years of practice at their special ways of love. They pay no mind to the audience or theatrical convention. They focus entirely on each other. They give us Elizabeth and Tom as they were when no one else was looking and their love most fully realized. What a beautiful thing to see.

For more of veteran cultural writer Tom Strini’s insights, visit his blog at striniwrites.blogspot.com.

On stage

Skin Tight continues at the Studio Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center through April 27. For tickets and further information call 414-291-7800 or go to http://www.r-t-w.com. Caution: Full nudity at the end of the play.