It’s not that “Small Mouth Sounds,” a gem of a play by Bess Wohl, is not, in itself, the main attraction and rightly so. But for someone whose task as a theatre reviewer is to evaluate the caliber of acting in any given production, I admit I was most preoccupied with the exceptional individual performances turned in by the well-chosen cast of the American Lives Theatre production I saw Friday night at The District Theatre on Mass Ave. The show continues its run through December 12.
The play focuses on six characters who are attending a five-day spiritual retreat, in which participants are required to remain silent, which, of course, means there is little to no dialogue. In the end, however, the characters’ actions definitely speak louder than words ever could. The satirical play begins with the six truth-seekers sitting on a row of folding chairs, as they look through their welcome packets while listening to their teacher, who sets the tone with a speech riddled with New Age cliches, outlining retreat rules. The teacher (Ben Rose) is never seen throughout the proceedings, but instead heard over a microphone.
Over the course of the five days, the retreat participants gather for daily lectures and get to know each other as they interact, all without language, using gestures, mouthing words and utilizing body language to communicate. With the play’s action taking place on a minimal set, which consists of a wood-planked floor and tree branches to suggest the woods, imagination is required to visualize the shelters in which they are housed in pairs. During the course of the play, the individual stories and backgrounds of the campers begin to emerge, and we’re given a window into each of their lives and their individual traumas and sufferings which brought them to the retreat in the first place. Though Wohl satirizes the self-indulgence of these spiritual pilgrims, she also portrays them sympathetically, so we feel empathy and compassion for them.
The characters who make for an interesting and, dare I say, motley mix include sad sack Jan (Kevin Caraher), the most enigmatic of the group, who carries a framed photo of a child, leaving one to wonder the nature of the relationship. There’s the lesbian couple, Joan (Natalie Cruz) and Judy (Jenni White), who exhibit a tension between them that is palpable. Then, there is Alicia (Morgan Morton), the most disheveled of the group, who shows up late, eats junk food and ignores a primary retreat rule by constantly using her cell phone. Rodney (Lucas Felix Schooler), who fully embraces the experience, seems like he is consciously cultivating a certain image by always staying in a yoga pose or lighting incense as he meditates. Later, we find out he isn’t as spiritually evolved as he presents himself. Ned (Zachariah Stonerock) is the only camper to actually verbalize his traumas, which are numerous and stretching credulity, and shared in a matter-of-fact manner during a Q&A with the teacher. It’s made clear within the 100-minute play, without intermission, that these are suffering and damaged souls who are seeking answers or at least relief from a power greater than themselves.
The fact that these characters provide very little dialogue require the audience to figure out what’s going on, thereby demanding total attention to the action taking place on stage. But it also makes it a truly interactive experience, giving the work its most novel dynamic. In the end, as we come to know these struggling, wounded people, they become not only relatable, but in most cases, likable, and one is left with hope they eventually find solutions to their problems or, at least, some peace of mind.
Watching this group of actors deftly working, honing their craft, astutely guided by skilled director Chris Saunders, as they interpreted a compelling, engaging script, made for a theatrical experience that was, thus far, one of my favorite outings this season.
For tickets and information about “Small Mouth Sounds,” visit americanlivestheatre.org.