In “Small Mouth Sounds,” Bess Wohl’s new play at Long Wharf Theatre, we follow six, tormented individuals who are seeking peace and happiness by attending an Asian-style retreat. These folks are seeking the help of a guru, or wise person, to lead them out of their misery. The wise person here is called the “Teacher” (Orville Mendoza), and like the voice of an invisible god, he does most of the talking off-stage while his students are sworn to complete silence throughout their stay.
Under the excellent direction of Rachel Chavkin, this unique play is mostly expressed through pantomime, and the personality, emotions, and the changing moods of each, character in this highly diversified group of students are clearly defined by their facial expressions, body language and the use of props.
The most amusing, facial expressions take place when Teacher is speaking over a microphone in a slow-paced, calm voice. The women seem to question, “Are you for real?” Another’s impatient, body language seems to indicate “Get on with it already.” One guy leans forward and looks completely puzzled. while another sits erectly and smiles confidently as he digests each word. The last male sleeps and almost falls off his chair.
As in Samuel Becket’s abstract play, “Happy Days,” the objects each student brings to the retreat reveals his or her life’s accumulated baggage. The sparse set, by Laura Jellineck, consists of a row of six chairs that face the audience and the off-stage teacher. A row of windows in the background indicates the weather and the play’s changing mood, which begins with a rainstorm.
When the stage lights come up, “Jan” (Connor Barrett), a tall, heavily bearded, disheveled man, is already seated in the single row of six seats and is studying some papers that he takes out of his backpack. Curiously, Jan’s crumpled backpack is powder blue and looks like it belongs to a child.
The next to arrive is “Rodney” (Edward Chin-Lyn). He is a young, self-absorbed Asian and it’s evident that he’s been down this path before. He takes his shoes off, bows politely to Jan, sits down on the floor and immediately begins to meditate. Rodney is also into yoga and is proud to show off his trim body. His baggage contains a portable incense burner and other ritual, prayer objects, and yet, we sense that something is lacking.
An arguing, lesbian couple (Socorro Santiago) and (Cherene Snow), arrive and disturb the silence, however, they quickly conform to the rules. These middle-aged women are carrying a heavy load of comforters and drugs, and it’s clear that they suffer from physical and emotional pain.
When “Ned,” the nebbish (Ben Beckly) wanders in, he seems uncomfortable with himself, his surroundings, and everyone else around him. His neat belongings seem to consist of a book, an inflatable pillow, and a toothbrush, but, that’s not all — he’s the only one in the group who has a dialogue with the teacher because his real baggage consists of a long list of personal woes.
As in many group meetings, someone, usually rushes in late and causes a disruption. In this case it’s “Alicia” who’s continually sobbing emotions are played to the hilt by Brenna Palughi. Alicia carries some highly disorganized “baggage,” most of it is candy, which becomes scattered all over the place. It’s against the house rules, but this annoying, young woman carries a cell phone as if it’s part of her anatomy. During her frustrations, she symbolically holds the phone up to the audience as if it is the root of all human suffering. Amusingly, Teacher is not without fault. When interrupted by his own cell phone, he admits that he has problems too.
The retreat’s sleeping quarters consists of three rooms, which are defined by pairs of straw mats. On the darkened stage, we get to see the habits and silent interactions among the guests. A brighter scene depicts the retreat’s more joyful, outdoor activities where clothing is not required – at least for Rodney, who unashamedly frolics across the stage in stark daylight while displaying complete, frontal nudity. Although we were warned before entering the theatre, this in your face southern exposure was a turn-off. It was uncomfortable to the women in the audience who shook their heads in distain, and totally unnecessary to include in the production.
On the final day of the retreat, the attendees write their “intentions” on slips of paper and set their words on fire – to hopefully recycle the combined energy for eternity. Whether everyone’s problems were solved remains questionable. It’s the “intention” to become whole within oneself that’s important.
While viewing this play,” phrases of Simon and Garfunkle’s theme song from the film “The Graduate,” kept repeating in my head. There’s a lot to be said about “The Sounds of Silence” and “Small Mouth Sounds.” Both titles are not only a play on words, it’s the similar, visual poetry and Wohl’s unique presentation of “the dance of life” that moved me. As the playwright suggests in the program notes, “You get out of it what you put into it.” Never the less, this is a very human play and you don’t have to be a “Yale School of Drama” professor to be touched by its humor and pathos.
Plays to: Sept. 24 Tickets: 203-787-4282
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” September/2017