Tonic for our troubles – we search for it in many different ways. Some turn to drink, some bury themselves in self-help books and others seek relief through professional counselling. No matter which road we choose, we’re all after the same thing. To make the pain stop.
Doesn’t sound like a very funny premise for a play, or even necessarily a challenging one. Angsty stories of personal suffering fill our theaters and books and screens as do dark humor takes on tragedy. Nothing much new here. This is why Bess Wohl’s kick at the can in Small Mouth Sounds is so thrillingly refreshing. She’s taken the ubiquitous dialogue-heavy premise of human anguish and silenced the story. As in literally silenced it.
Despite having much to say both humorous and poignant, Small Mouth Sounds is mostly a silent play. Wohl sets her story at an Ashram-like, no-talking-allowed retreat where city folks go to sleep on thin mats, attend lectures, meditate and fleetingly dip themselves in self-awareness in the hopes that it might somehow change their lives.
We meet six of these hopeful folks (three men and three women) as they file, retreat packages in hand, into a simple Zen-like room (elegantly realized by Jodi Bobrovsky) consisting of only six chairs in front of a bamboo sculpturesque back drop. An unseen guru (who Wohl cleverly writes with a mixture of cheeky satire and insightful pathos) welcomes the group, goes over the schedule and enforces the rule of silence for their five-day stay.
What unfolds for the next 100 minutes or so is a kind of mime-like dance where characters silently (but not necessarily soundlessly – think of all the grunts and sighs one makes as wordless exclamation points) interact and navigate with each other in order to tell the story of their journey over the few days. We as an audience embark on a journey of our own along with them, but instead of seeking nirvana, we seek clues. Sleuthing becomes our excursion as we pay rapt attention in an effort to pick up visual hints as to who these people are, why they’re at the retreat and how they feel about each other.
Frankly some characters are easier to figure out than others.
There’s Judy (Kim Tobin-Lehl who also directs the show) and Joan (an emotionally resplendent Pamela Vogel) whose closeness and affection with each other easily indicates they’re a couple with a long history. When Joan cries openly and dramatically at the guru’s mention of death and cancer and we later witness Judy downing nightly pills while huffing in dulled pain (a bit too broadly for my taste), we pretty much have their situation figured out. But still, what’s up with the prickliness that keeps oozing between them? We watch to find out.
Rodney (played with comedic intensity by Nick Falco) is “that yoga guy” as whispered by Joan before the enforced silence. If yoga means taking off your shirt at any moment to flaunt your taut torso and believing that your incense and chanting is not in opposition to the no flame, no talking rule, then Rodney is the master. However our belief that he’s there simply to deepen his practice is put into question when he lets his libido take a nefarious turn.
Arriving late in an anxious whirlwind is Alicia (Amy Garner Buchanan wonderfully oozing wretchedness) burdened down with way too many bags containing clothes and snacks and a cell phone she can’t part with. With painted nails and body conscious clothes we can tell she’s a young woman used to men’s attention but one look at her misery and it’s not hard to see that it’s man trouble that’s brought her to the retreat. What kind and how remains elusive.
The constant toque-wearing Ned (a stand out, can’t take your eyes off him performance by Jeff Miller) is a jumble of nerves, anger, frustration and expectation. From the first day when his pen breaks, to his annoyance at roommate Rodney’s selfish actions to his failed flirting attempts, we can tell that Ned is a down on his luck loser. But just how down is beyond our imagination until Wohl breaks her no-talking rule to allow Ned a monologue as incredibly funny as it is tragic. If we know little about Ned before, we certainly learn too much about him after in this show stealing turn that itself is worth the price of admission.
Finally there is Jan (a suspiciously serene Kregg Dailey) the most truly tragic of the bunch. Dressed like a man-child in a polo T-shirt and khakis, carrying a cartoon dinosaur backpack, Jan totes around a photo of a little boy he kisses every night. Jan’s smile may be broad and his manner calm, but we know that whoever that boy is, he is forever lost to him. The mystery in sleuthing Jan is to figure out where the pain of this loss is hiding.
Director Tobin-Lehl certainly gives each cast member ample opportunity to shine as they silently (or not) make friends, form enemies and show us who they are. Some issues arise in staging however when characters turn their backs to us or the cast sits on the stage floor and we’re unable to fully see the wordless communication. Tobin-Lehl also seems hesitant in the silence of her show, rushing moments or adding a flurry of body language instead of trusting the audiences’ tolerance for quiet stillness. Wohl’s script works best when we’re brought into the intimacy of the silence with ample breathing room and made to feel part of the retreat. It’s in these moments that we relate to the characters and what they are going through most strongly.
These problems aside, Tobin-Lehl does succeed in the show’s most important task – namely to make us so engaged in the story that we forget the unusual quietness of the play. Even in the absence of constant dialogue, we easily laugh as the play begins comically and we transition with full empathy as the story takes a turn for the serious. Wohl helps out with this by peppering small snippets of language throughout the story (it’s not as wordless as it claims to be) but in this production it’s also thanks to the tech team that we remain so engaged. Andrew Vances’s lighting soothes us with calming day and evening swaths of sun and shadow and glorious rippling waves on the retreat’s lakefront. Chris Bakos’s beautiful sound design creates a dialogue of nature sounds that fills the gaps where no words are spoken.
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Wohl has said that her inspiration for Small Mouth Sounds came from her own experience at a silent retreat and it’s obvious that she’s infused her script with several humorous and insightful takeaways from the experience. Audience members get the sense, for example, that the increasingly agitated guru comes from more than just imagination. But this is a script with far bigger ambitions than simply to skewer or savor the retreat phenomenon. Ultimately this is a show about paths toward and impediments to communication and our ability to really understand those around us.
In an era when we talk silently to each other in a nonstop stream of text and email and instant messaging, Small Mouth Sounds feels both thoroughly modern and yearningly retro. Watching actors express emotions and depict relationships with nothing but their bodies and faces harkens back to silent film days (subtitles aside) and wonderfully challenges us to flex our muscles of acuity and attention in a spoon fed world. At the same time, trusting an audience so attuned to being spoken at to step willingly into the silence of this show is a decidedly modern approach to theater-making.
In the end, the characters will glean no deeper meaning from their time not speaking. If they’re lucky, the quiet retreat will show them where to start to look for answers, but inner peace for these folks is far bigger than five silent days. And while it would be hyperbolic to suggest that 100 minutes in a mostly wordless play brings inner meaning to us as an audience, it is fair to say that we walk away with the peacefulness of knowing that our powers of perception and ability to read humanness is not a lost art form after all. And for that knowledge we give a silent and happy…..OM.
Small Mouth Sounds continues through September 26 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. Purchase tickets online at starknakedtheatre.com or by phone at 832.866.6514. $15 - $49.