The last place you’d think to go for a little peace and quiet is the theater. But that’s what happens in Round House Theatre’s production of Bess Wohl’s 2015 off-Broadway hit, Small Mouth Sounds, an oddly beguiling play that sneaks up on you like an unexpected flash of enlightenment.
Director Ryan Rilette attentively tackles the challenge of staging a nearly wordless play that expresses volumes of feeling and backstory in gestures, expressions and body language. While the volume is turned way down in Small Mouth Sounds, the emotional levels are high and mellifluous thanks to a cast of six working at peak power (and that’s not counting the unseen role of the Teacher, played by Timothy Douglas with sandalwood-scented ooze).
The play is based on Wohl’s experience, when she signed up for what she thought was going to be a spa weekend with the girls in upstate New York but wich turned out to be a silent spiritual retreat.
It is in this sylvan setting (the calming set, a wood-paneled yoga studio surrounded by trees and chirping birds created by scenic designer Debra Booth, lighting designer York Kennedy and sound designer Roc Lee) that the six characters walk into and from the start you can see they are seeking relief from the noise around them and inside their heads.
Well, maybe some of them. Alicia (a fetchingly frazzled Katie deBuys), has a stash of junky snacks and clings to her cellphone and giant purse as if life rafts, tapping out angry texts and inchoate messages to her ex every chance she gets all the while managing the impossible—looking appealing while red-nosed and snuffling.
Her attractiveness hasn’t gone unnoticed by Rodney (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, supplely playing a yogi whose motives may be more carnal than transcendental), a yogic soba noodle who twists himself into studly poses to be admired by all assembled. Or by nebbishy New Ager Ned (Michael Glenn), who has one of the play’s only soliloquies, an explanation of why he always wears a hat that goes tragically and comically off-topic as he relates all the subsequent woes that get ticked off like dominoes, beginning with his wife sleeping with his brother. And believe me, it gets worse.
Glenn crafts a small gem of a silent movie as Ned, his eyes and “pardon me for living” posture expressing more than words could ever deign to express. His cosmic shrug is a striking contrast to the Atlas-like tendencies of Ebrahimzadeh’s Rodney, supremely at ease in his body.
Small Mouth Sounds
closes September 23, 2018
Details and tickets
Jan (James Whalen, acrobatically expressive) is a cheerful fellow who seems to be getting karmic payback in the form of bugs he perpetually tries to swat away. However, he proves to be of deeper, tenderer stuff, as shown in a scene of wordless, shimmering amity as he shares his pain and loss with Joan (Andrea Harris Smith, hitting grace notes as a troubled cancer patient), who is going through a rough patch with her partner Judy (Beth Hylton, sensitively conveying the stress and guilt of a loving caretaker).
Although detached from their everyday lives—the Teacher croons that this will be a “vacation from your habits, your routines, yourself,”—their real selves compromise their quest for nirvana. You can’t help but laugh and relate as Judy, after a fight with Joan, shows up the next morning for class with Starbucks and a bakery bag in tow, her normal coping and numbing technique.
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Or when Ned tries to compete with Rodney, but his body just won’t cooperate. Their foibles are all too human as they strive to quiet their minds and achieve some sense of serenity in a world that is beeping, yelling, buzzing and otherwise clamoring loudly for their attention.
They, like us, seek respite from modern noise and to be comfortable in silence, not distracting ourselves with cellphones and Bluetooth. Wohl’s use of silence, and her invitation for the characters and their audience to just sit and luxuriate in the stretches between words, recalls the playwright Annie Baker and her play John, which recently mesmerized audiences at Signature Theatre.
For each of these plays’ duration, we are asked to turn it down and tune into the silences that either fill us with peace or paw at our uncertainties and disquiet. Small Mouth Sounds, with its gentle humor and compassion, reveals to us the many ways in which words get in the way.
Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl Director: Ryan Rylette. Featuring: James Whalen, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Michael Glenn, Andrea Harris Smith, Beth Hylton, Timothy Douglas, Katie deBuys. Scenic Designer: Debra Booth. Lighting Designer: York Kennedy. Costume Designer: Debra Kim Sivigny. Sound Designer: Roc Lee. Projections Designer: Alexandra Kelly Colburn. Stage Manager: Lacey Talero. Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.