Small Mouth Sounds

January 6, 2019

in Plays

Play (2016)
by Bess Wohl

Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara

Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
January 4 – February 2, 2019

With Marianna Bassham (The Teacher), Nael Nacer (Ned), Celeste Oliva (Judy), Sam Simahk (Rodney), Kerry A. Dowling (Joan), Gigi Watson (Alicia)

Nael Nacer as Ned, Sam Simakh as Rodney in 'Small Mouth Sounds'

Nael Nacer as Ned
Sam Simakh as Rodney
in “Small Mouth Sounds”
Photo: Nile Scott Studio
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

A terrific production of a funny but moving play, largely wordless, set in a silent meditation retreat.

Six characters enter the bare hall in which a meditation retreat is to occur. They carefully array their yoga mats on the ground for overnight accommodations and congregate in a row of chairs on a stage where they are addressed by the retreat leader (Marianna Bassham) whose voice is heard but who is never seen. Over the course of the multiple days of the retreat, relationships emerge, bonds are formed and broken, and a sense of transition and emergence occurs.

What a weird and wonderful play this is. Largely silent, or certainly with huge gaps of it, its narrative relies on carefully structured and indicated stage notes. Miraculously, wordlessly, real dramas develop and one truly emerges with a sense of who the characters are, what some of their issues are, and where they were at the beginning of the retreat and where they seemed to be at the end.

The writing is very good. Though clearly challenging many of the norms of typical narrative theater, the play manages to achieve some coherent sense of narrative. It is really quite a remarkable feat. One can say that as well of truly iconoclastic playwrights like Caryl Churchill who frequently does what she can to collapse, fragment and alter verbal interchange. Here, playwright Wohl does not so much alter narrative as avoid it.

As well, the play manages to be pretty hilarious while not becoming out and out satirical. There are satirical qualities throughout, which do contribute to the humor, but they do so in a way that does not violate something of the basic seriousness of the overall intent.

The cast is filled with great actors and they manage, under director O’Gara’s leadership, to pull off this semi-verbal conjuring to considerable effect.

Marianna Bassham (The Teacher), as the retreat guide, is a total scream. Bassham has the capacity to be very, very funny while also conveying a sense of vulnerability. She does that to perfection here, mixing confessional and self-effacing side-comments along with fairly spacey spiritualistic directives. The role, which is entirely piped in from offstage, has a bit of the Wizard of Oz about it. All of the retreatants bask in some wonder at this teacher’s guidance; the hilarity of how the role is written, much like that of the Wizard of Oz, is its vulnerable ordinariness wrapped in majestic grandiosity.

Nael Nacer (Ned), who has shown his more intense chops in outings in recent years at the Gloucester Stage with the role of Lee in Sam Shepard’s True West and Sam in Annie Baker’s The Flick, brings that intensity, along with a native gentleness, to his portrayal here. His long soliloquy detailing the horrors of his life is riveting, and the anguished wrestling match he undertakes, with its inverse result, is wonderfully and evocatively executed.

Celeste Oliva as Judy in 'Small Mouth Sounds'

Celeste Oliva as Judy
in “Small Mouth Sounds”
Photo: Nile Scott Studio
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

Celeste Oliva (Judy) and Kerry A. Dowling (Joan) do a fine job as an incipient middle-aged couple confronting a serious challenge, and Sam Simahk (Rodney) as the celebrated yoga instructor and the curiously fascinated Alicia (Gigi Watson) make a dynamically spicy and forceful pair.

Rounding out the performances is Barlow Adamson (Jan), who, in more ways than one, has the last word, and it’s a powerful one.

This play, as playwright Bess Wohl describes in the script, was inspired by an actual retreat she attended in upstate New York. Her daring and remarkably successful attempt to convey what goes into a retreat – the expectations, the ego, the vulnerabilities, the fractures, the disappointments, and the overall possibilities for transformation, come through in their own strange and interesting way.

This excellent production, beautifully acted and directed, is well worth a visit.

– BADMan

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