If this presidential race has been giving you tunnel vision, come veer way off to the left with us into Shirley, Vermont. The people of playwright Annie Baker’s fictional New England town — polite, well off, and highly academic — are undecided about very little. This is the quiet land of care, community, and political correctness. If someone, heaven forbid, tries to put you in a box, someone’s there to help you think your way out of it. Equality isn’t just a concept; it’s a daily cause.
For a playwright as perceptive as Baker, this cerebral idyll is a bubble waiting to be popped. When a stranger comes wandering into this quiet realm, shaking up the status quo can become funny, painful stuff indeed. This 2008 play — followed by Baker’s highly successful and heavily rotated Circle Mirror Transformation — uses time-worn building blocks and recognizable types to craft a surprisingly complex and textured character study. Under Eleanor Holdridge’s direction at Theater J, the show sparkles and entertains from beginning to end.
It’s Body Awareness Week at Shirley State. Technically, it’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week, but as Psychology professor Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) explains, it’s better to take a bigger, more positive perspective on such things. The multi-cultural programming for the week — rigorously eclectic and full of guest artists — is meant to inspire. But the nude female portraits on display from visiting photographer Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer) don’t exactly fit the mold.
With a playful nod to sitcom structure, Baker has Frank — an out-of-towner — bunk up at Phyllis’s house for the week, which provides ample opportunities for the two to butt heads over some of Frank’s more indelicate ideas about work, women, and gender. Frank also bumps routinely into her girlfriend of three years Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) and Joyce’s combative, anti-social 21-year-old son Jared (newcomer Adi Stein), both of whom grapple with whether his dingbat charm is tonic or toxic.
At first it seems Frank stands a chance of fitting in: lights first rise on him in the kitchen of his hosts’ house propped on a stool in jeans and boots, channeling the spirits through a soulful solo on the recorder. But Body Awareness quickly becomes a comedy of manners, going at moments for easy laughs (albeit worthwhile and well-timed) but more often probing the ways people can wrap themselves up tight in their philosophies, and how hard it can be to find a balance between using your noggin and trusting your gut.
This town may seem pretty kumbaya, but the gaps in empathy can be glaring. Phyllis and Joyce worry that the reclusive Jared may have Asperger’s — the most overt evidence of this theme of empathy — and attempt to empower him to self-diagnose. Jared reads the psychology books placed in his lap but refuses therapy, insisting he’s free of disorder. He campaigns thereafter to prove his ability to care about others, which tracks nicely with Phyllis’s and Joyce’s rocky journey toward accepting Frank — and each other.
Frank, for the most part, eats cheese cubes and stares in mild confusion. He’s a simple man, refreshingly straightforward, and Michael Kramer does wonderfully funny work. But all four of these bright actors mesh well, and what has clearly been some dedicated work from Holdridge on comic rhythm pays off hugely. The show is stuffed with heady issues, but these folks wear their mantles so askew that our desire to care for them — and their inner insecurities — is rewarded rather than snuffed out.
Theater J’s astute and skilled work here serves up big ideas and real laughs, and the two never compete for purpose. They originate from the same, sad place — passionate and outspoken characters with soft underbellies and secreted fears. Body Awareness explores the implications of both gayness and straightness, of going with the flow or controlling the current, of offering yourself or protecting yourself. And, perhaps most importantly, of trusting others even when you believe you have something to teach them.
If only Shirley State offered such an insightful seminar. Until they do, you can get it at Theater J.
Body Awareness by Annie Baker. directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Featuring Susan Lynskey, MaryBeth Wise, Adi Stein and Michael Kramer. Set design:Daniel Ettinger, lighting design: Nancy Schertler. Costumes, properties and sound: Kelsey Hunt, Joshua Rosenblum and Chas Marsh. Produced by Theater J, Reviewed by Hunter Styles