Inspired by the playwright’s attending a silent spiritual retreat at an upstate New York institute in the woods, this is an absorbing play which immediately causes the viewers to listen intently as our world is never really silent. In Stowe Nelson’s remarkable soundscape, the play begins with a torrential rain, and then proceeds to a great many sounds we usually take for granted (both performed by the actors and recorded): breathing, laughing, clicking of a pen, sighing, a gong ringing, whispers, giggling, crickets chirping, the crunching of chips, birds, a sip of tea, a sneeze, coughing, a cell phone ringing. As a result of this state of affairs and the fact that the actors (in general) don’t speak, we become attuned to watch the smallest facial expression and other forms of non-verbal communication.
The set by Laura Jellinek puts one in the mood for an evening of learning and insight. The theater has been turned into a white and blonde wood hall with a platform at one end with six folding chairs. The audience sits on both sides of the length of the room as though also in a lecture hall, surrounding a rectangular open playing area. The play’s cast uses the platform for the scenes in which they are instructed by the unseen Teacher while the rest of the scenes take place in the long rectangular playing area, those in the dorm rooms, in the woods, by the lake, the parking lot, etc.
The six participants in this five day workshop in spiritual enlightenment arrive one by one: silent Jan (Max Baker) who we later discover is still suffering from a loss in the past; self-absorbed Rodney (Babak Tafti), a celebrated yoga guru in admirable physical shape; needy Ned (Brad Heberlee), who always wears a cap to cover his head, and who we find out is a serial loser and a regular at self-help programs; opposites Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), obviously a couple – who are dealing with Judy’s cancer diagnosis we are told halfway through, and blonde, attractive, neurotic Alicia (Zoë Winters) who arrives late with too many packages, and who is always texting and attempting to call someone who has exited from her life.
When all are assembled, the unseen, wise, androgynous-sounding Teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) gives them a parable to ponder and the ground rules: no smoking, no alcohol, no cell phones except in the parking lot, no food in the room due to wild animals in the area, no refunds – and no talking during the five days of the retreat. “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. It is the best kind of vacation. Because after this, you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.” We get to see if the six do change in the course of their week.
The audience must deduce the backstories as much is left unexplained though by the end certain things are revealed about the six participants. However, it is always possible to follow the main story lines. In the course of the five days, the participants attempt to communicate through amusing pantomime and often heart-rending facial expressions. However, there is a certain amount of backsliding: characters sneak off to use their cell phones, try to whisper, become agitated enough to speak. Halfway through the week, there is the Question and Answer session where we hear Ned tell of his trials and tribulations. Teacher’s first-time cell phone which rings occasionally and at inappropriate moments is used for comic relief.
Much of it is amusing as the characters are at first unaware how noisy they are, or how their needs and tics are a problem for the others living in such close quarters: Alicia likes to eat chips in bed, Rodney plans on burning incense. But all of them are suffering some sort of emotional crisis or pain which only becomes obvious through their interactions. The play’s one weakness is that there is little sense of catharsis at the end, but the message may be that we do not change as much as we think that we will – even if it is necessary to our emotional health.
Under Chavkin’s unassuming, assured direction, the cast is excellent, making their feelings known even though they remain unspoken, creating strong characters without the use of words. Not revealing the Teacher’s identity until the very end is a clever idea. Tilly Grimes’ costumes tell us a great deal about who these people think they are. The beautiful and low-key video design by Andrew Schneider makes the presence of the lake, the woods and nature almost palpable. Mike Inwood’s subtle lighting devides the day time and night time scenes in this forest with poetic skill. The props which become of great importance as clues to understanding the silent characters are by Noah Mease.
Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds is an extremely unusual evening in the theater. Not only does it oblige us to listen in a way we usually don’t during a play, it also asks us to consider our own state of mental and emotional health as we watch six people attempt to come to terms – or not – with their life situations. Under Rachel Chavkin’s direction, Max Baker, Babak Tafti, Brad Herberlee, Marcia DeBonis, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jojo Gonzalez, and Zoë Winters give perceptive and memorable performances without having the advantage of words to reveal who they are.
Small Mouth Sounds (extended through October 9, 2016)
Ars Nova Production
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.ticketcentral.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission