Gemma Wilcox has developed a considerable following with her series of related, fantastical and original one-woman shows. These have played around the United States and Canada, as well as at the Boulder Fringe Festival, winning several awards along the way. So the theater was full for the opening of her production of 52 Pick Up, even though the script was created not by Wilcox, but by T J Dawe and Rita Bozi.
The central conceit involves a pack of cards that two actors scatter, then pick up one by one, announcing what the card is — two of diamonds, jack of spades — and reading its caption, which is always something evocative and elliptical like "What happened?" or "Cities" or "Should I? Shouldn't I?" That statement cues a brief — sometimes absolutely tiny — scene. The scenes are out of order, of course. You never get the straightforward arc of the couple's affair; you may see the wistful one-year-after scene before the first meeting, and so on. And since the cards can be picked up in almost endless combinations and permutations, no two audiences will ever see quite the same play.
The actors' work with the cards, the chopped-up narrative and the brief scenes all have a distancing effect. You don't get to know these two people deeply or to really understand their relationship. You learn some superficial things, like the Woman is interested in Tarot and travel and the Man isn't; that she thinks he could dress better and wishes he'd read more; that he dislikes her smoking habit; that each has moments of deep ambivalence about the other. The dialogue isn't brilliant, but it isn't banal, either, and it does communicate the uncertainties of love and the difficulties that lovers have in talking honestly with each other. You may not be deeply moved, but you will find yourself smiling. And there was one moment, as the lovers tried to decide whether to stay together, when I found memories of a long-ago breakup taking over full force. I remembered the feeling that we simply couldn't continue balanced against sheer terror at the idea of life without him, with all its pain and emptiness. And how we were not only unable to explain what we felt to each other, but we couldn't even figure out exactly what it was for ourselves.
Wilcox and Sam Elmore bring subtlety and ingenuity to the scenes. They make an intriguing game of the card pick-up, moving through it in a dance-like, synchronized way, watching each other intently, silently teasing and challenging. They may have devised some system with director Elizabeth Baron for which of them would pick up the next card after a particular scene, but if there was a logic to that, it eluded me — as did any connection between the cards and their captions. Elmore has a ruffle-haired charm and a good sense of humor, but most of the evening's piquancy is provided by Wilcox, who intrigues you through combinations of opposites: the contradiction between the dancer's hardness of her torso and the soft roundedness of her moves, for instance, and the fact that her emotions well up with such spontaneity but are expressed with a mime's skilled professionalism.