10/12/2019        SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS                                            Alliance Theatre



Sssshhhhhhh.   Are you all relaxed?  Very Good.  Now take a deep breath and hold it.  In through your nose.  Now slowly let it out through your mouth.  Let all your tension drain from your body as the air leaves your lungs.   If you wish, close your eyes and imagine you’re lying on an air mattress floating in a calm tide.  The sun on your face is warm, comfortable, not burning.


Now drift with the tide, thinking nothing, saying nothing.  I’ll stop talking.













Now, don’t you feel better, more relaxed?




Let’s talk about Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, a lovely little play that sends up faddish “Silence Retreats” and classes without losing touch with the very real psychological benefits of introspection, meditation, and just plain silence.  We meet six damaged people, people in pain, people who have been broken.  To quote Ms. Wohl, “In this way, they are not unlike the rest of us.”  An unseen teacher welcomes them, goes over the ”rules,” and offers kernels of nebulous advice that, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit, ring hollow.


But the silence, the silence is the real healer.


This is a play with very little dialogue, very little “back story” other than what is posted in a nice “Meet the Characters” display in the Hertz Stage lobby.  We have to rely on how the characters react, how they “play,” how they silently fight to fill in the gaps.  And, more often than not, we will be wrong, as we learn in a nice reveal close to the end, which will remain unrevealed here.


Ned has the most to say, as he gets to ask a mumbling question at one point that is more digression than get-to-the-point, and, whether what he says is real or not, is truth or not, may just be the biggest irrelevancy on hand.


We quickly learn that Rodney is a yoga instructor, a “star” of numerous self-help videos, and may be a person who is not so much damaged himself as a one who leaves damaged people in his wake.


We know that Joan and Judy are a couple, with issues, mostly surrounding one of them losing a battle to a debilitating illness.  We know that Alicia is young and frazzled and upset that the “powers that be”   have her sharing a cabin with a man, Jan, who, well, who seems mostly confused, but harmless.  He makes his first entrance long before the play even begins, because, well, because reasons.  Jan’s  lobby “back story” tells us he is a minister on sabbatical.


And, of course, the unseen teacher has issues of her own that threaten to knee-cap any good she may be doing these people.


The cast in a beautiful ensemble, totally reliant on each other to sell the stories (and there are several) without the benefit of speech.  They include Jeremy Aggers (Jan), Owais Ahmed (Rodney), Andrew Benator (Ned), Alexandra Fricken (Alicia), January LaVoy (Teacher), Courtney Patterson (Joan), and Ericka Ratcliff (Judy).  I especially appreciated how Ms. Patterson and Ms. Ratcliff succeeded in showing us a (long term) couple who are skilled at silent argument and passive aggressive actions.  And I loved how {nuh-uh} made that final reveal so believable with no “set-up” or foreshadowing whatsoever.


Susan Booth directs with her usual skill, Scenic Designer Leslie M. Taylor has created a simple set that shows us three tiny cabin “spaces” backed by a common room that seems to change “identity” at the whim of the teacher.   Lights and projections (by Lacey Erb) and sound by Clay Benning convincingly let us know we’re in the woods, let us know when it is day or night, let us know when it is rainy or sunny.


Did I mention the bear?


So, referring back to why I found the teacher’s lessons suspect:  way back in 1979, during the height of the Est Movement, I participated in some “retreats” bearing similarities to that on display here, learning some relaxation techniques that seem to have found their way into my opening paragraph.  Part of all the training was a proscription against talking, or music, or making any sounds whatsoever.  So, I know how hard it can be to just shut up and listen to your own thoughts, how difficult it is to get your thoughts to shut up and just drift.  Anyone who has ever had a musical earworm stuck in their brain can probably relate.  Did it change my life?  Maybe a bit.  Have I felt stress since then, or thrown the occasional hissy fit?  Of course.  Which is to say that the lessons on tap are band-aids for wounds that go too deep for pop psychology mavens (and movements) to ever have a hope of completely curing.


But band-aids, at the right time, can be life-saving, and I left the play convinced these broken characters are on a possibly healing journey.  And that, my friends, deserves another few seconds of just listening to our own silences.









     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #SmallMouthSounds   #AllianceTheatre   #SayNoMore)



I was seriously tempted to just post a blank page as my review for this but decided that would be patently unfair to this outstanding cast and production team.  On the other hand, I DO enjoy wallowing in “Aren’t I Being Clever” pastiches.  That’s my true “center.”

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