Here’s an interesting thought to ponder: We all know that the mate we choose for ourselves is essentially a composite of two parts, body and soul. How we came to choose our mate is an exceptionally personal decision, based on physical attraction, shared experiences, shared beliefs, the wish (or not) for children, and a million other things that go into popping the question or saying yes to that question. But suppose, for a moment, that some whacked-out god with a strange sense of humor told you that your mate was about to change – that the composite of body and soul was about to become two separate entities. Further, this god tells you that you may continue to pursue your mate, but only body or soul, one or the other, not both. Which do you pursue?

Playwright Craig Lucas pondered something akin to the above nightmare scenario, came to his answer, and then did what playwrights do: he wrote a play about it. Prelude to a Kiss, written in 1992, sets up a rather unique pair of individuals and then pulls this stunt on them. The show, now on stage at the Renaissance Center in Wake Forest, is the latest fare from Forest Moon Theater. The play received quite an enthusiastic response when it first came out, and it still has many facets that resonate.

Director Bob Baird has staged the play with minimal set pieces – the places involved are many and varied, and FMT uses TV screens to indicate just where in the world we are at any given time – but the essence of the show is still there.

Peter (Aaron Young) meets and begins dating Rita (Abby Jordan). Peter is a manager with a scientific publisher of journals; Rita is a bartender. The two seem rather ill suited for a match; Peter is pretty straight-laced, and Rita is, well, a bundle of fears. She keeps the world at a distance, because it scares her. As the relationship develops, Rita opens up to Peter about her fears, which include the plight of mankind, the struggle to unite one’s physical and spiritual self, and the terrifying idea of bringing a child into this scary world. She keeps her thoughts in a journal; lately the pages have been filled with thoughts about her relationship with Peter.

Over the course of a whirlwind romance that lasts six weeks, Peter and Rita move in together and she takes him to meet her folks. Dr. Boyle (Chris Brown) and Mrs. Boyle (Jean Jamison) find Peter to be good for their daughter, and the date is set.

So far, everything is going swimmingly. But once the vows are said, and the party gathers for the reception, we – and a lot of other folks at the reception – begin to notice this one old man. No one at the reception knows him; everyone assumes he’s someone else’s guest. When confronted by the crowd, he simply says he came to wish the couple well and to kiss the bride.

Here’s where things get weird. When the old man (played by Larry Evans, an old Chapel Hill actor that I thought had disappeared off the face of the earth) and Rita kiss, a singular thing happens: Rita and the old man “change places.” She is transported into his body, he into hers, and pretty much everything is turned upside down. Suddenly the old man is calling out for Peter; Rita has fallen strangely silent; the old guy seems to suddenly collapse, and then he flees, disappearing down the road. Now, since no one at the wedding except Rita (who is actually the old man) is aware of what has actually happened, and she doesn’t mention the exchange, the episode is pretty much forgotten by the wedding party. Peter and Rita are whisked off on their honeymoon to Jamaica, and all seems right with the world; except, it isn’t.

Peter soon finds that the woman he married isn’t the Rita he has come to know. This Rita is not scared; she seems almost fearless. She can’t remember anything, not even how to make a Long Island Iced Tea, a drink any bartender worth his or her salt would know. She begins spending money on her father’s hotel bill, and asking to do things that, normally, Rita would be afraid to do: go water-skiing, ride one of those balloons towed behind the boat, even go to a soccer match. And she tells Peter that the terribly poor people they saw outside the airport, living in their cars or in refrigerators, are just a fact of life, a sentiment Peter knows is not Rita’s own. By the time the honeymoon is over, Peter is convinced that Rita is no longer Rita. But his new bride is not admitting anything; she just keeps putting up walls.

Peter stops in to his favorite watering hole a few weeks after their return, and he is surprised to see The Old Man there, drinking Dewar’s, the drink that used to be Rita’s favorite. By this time, everything is wrong with Peter’s marriage, and seeing the old guy makes him wonder; he goes over and reintroduces himself. The old man finally admits that he’s really Peter’s Rita, which pretty much answers a whole slew of questions. The two hug, glad to be reunited, but their reunion, while comforting, doesn’t solve the dilemma. The rest of the play follows how the couple struggles with, seeks to rectify, and tries to find a place for the metaphysical separation that has occurred.

Through the events of Prelude to a Kiss, Lucas answers the question I posed at the top: who do you pursue? And while you may think you know what your answer to this question would be –after all, we all believe the “person” we chose as our mate is not merely the outer shell, that’s just packaging – this play pushes that belief to the extreme and tests its limits. Would you truly pursue the soul of your mate in this situational switcheroo, when doing so would make everyone around you think you’ve gone quite mad?

Of the cast of nine, four are minor characters. The principals are Peter, Rita, the old man, and Dr. and Mrs. Boyle. Aaron Young’s Peter is the one who must figure out this puzzle, and answer the Question, and then see if he can put this whole mess to rights. The thing that gives me pause here is that, due to a number of script cuts, Peter’s surmise and realization seem to come a little too easily. Rita, of course, has to play two characters, her own, and the Rita who is really the old man. Again, due to cuts, we see very little of the changed Rita. I would have liked to see a bit more of Rita after the change; I think it would have made Peter’s realization easier for us to follow. Dr. Boyle is pretty straightforward; he could never conceive of what has happened and would probably never admit to such, even if he did. Mrs. Boyle is a bit more sympathetic; she understands that this Rita is not the child she raised. But it’s the old man who intrigues me here; he’s the catalyst of this whole business. Is he happy with the result? We learn that, in order for this bizarre situation to have manifested itself, it was necessary, at the time of the kiss, for both of the two to want it to happen. So did Rita really wish to become the old man? And, now that it has really happened, is she glad it did? It’s up to the changed old man to convey the answers to these questions, and I do believe Larry Evans conveys these answers very clearly.

Craig Lucas wrote Prelude to a Kiss in 1992. He was forty at the time. Old enough to know how one should answer our odd question. He has written a number of plays since that time: God’s Heart; Blue Window; the Singing Forest; and the book to the musical The Light in the Piazza. But the play he wrote 28 years ago still resonates. And it leads me to another question: when we find our world has been turned upside down, do we adapt? Or, like Peter in Prelude, do we fight like hell to put things back the way they were? I’ll let you ponder that one for a while. I’d be interested to know your answer.

Prelude to a Kiss continues through Sunday, February 23. For more details on this production, please view the side