Story: A man meets a woman while walking in the woods. He strikes up a conversation with her and after a moment she reluctantly replies. He’s a chatty sort and a bit nosy as well, so he asks her where she’s headed and a bit about herself, too.

Thus begins an unusual but poignant relationship between two strangers passing at a crossing that can take them any number of directions. Eventually we learn that he is a stand-up comic by trade and hiking in search of inspiration, while she has a much more sober and frightening reason for her trek. Can he help her deal with her adversity? Can she help him find his own meaning? And is there something deeper developing between them?

Highlights: Upstream Theater gets its 11th season off to a compelling start with the national premiere of this two-character, two-act drama by Dutch playwright Ger Thijs. True to its mission, this affecting work is “designed to move you, and move you to think,” in the words of artistic director Philip Boehm.

Heart-rending performances by Lisa Tejero and Eric Dean White and soft, focused direction by Kenn McLaughlin make The Kiss a magical, marvelous exploration of the human heart.

Other Info: On the back of the program is a quote from Thijs stating, “Sometimes people discover their purpose, their dignity, not in happiness, but in a twist of fate…” In his play, The Kiss, translated by Paul Evans, Thijs takes a story relayed to him by a friend whose life was turned upside down by a medical diagnosis and weaves it into a haunting, affecting tale.

Set against an autumn background of colorful, fallen leaves and barren trees on Michael Heil’s scenic design, The Kiss becomes a pas de deux of vulnerability between two lonely souls searching for answers and meaning if not happiness. In this dance of yearning, they take turns exploring their own souls through the intercession of an interested outsider with surprising results.

White’s Everyman persona fits well with his character, a seemingly amiable chap who can reveal an ugly and frightening side, the nether world of a nightclub comedian who often disappears within his role before an indifferent audience. White fills the character with shades of bitterness and grim reality but also depicts a man who can be kind and remains open to the possibility of enchantment.

Tejero plays her role with bravado and bluster, putting up her guard against her unwelcome intruder but also displaying the woman’s innate curiosity and willingness to carefully reach out to another person in a time of acute need, tentative but touched by random compassion.

Each discusses their absent spouse -- “the silence of the dining room table” -- and problematic children as they wend their way through the forest en route to the woman’s physician, sharing their loneliness as well as dissecting their familial relationships like accomplished surgeons.

McLaughlin maintains an easy pace that reflects a leisurely stroll in the woods which is underscored equally by realism and fantasy acted out by his players. The man’s references to the woman’s “pilgrimage” are intimated by the Stations of the Cross carved out along the perimeter of Heil’s stage.

Boehm and Michael B. Perkins add a melancholy sound design that accentuates the story, and Tony Anselmo’s lighting design supplements the setting. Michele Friedman Siler and Claudia Horn provide costumes and props that fit the characters.

Intriguing and engaging, The Kiss shows the possibilities of love and understanding that may await one observing the signs at any turn along life’s mysterious path.

Play: The Kiss

Group: Upstream Theater

Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive

Dates: October 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25

Tickets: $20-$30; contact upstreamtheater@sbcglobal.net or upstreamtheater.org

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak

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