For the six characters who assemble for a week-long retreat in Bess Wohl's SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS (now playing at Stray Cat Theatre), silence is the order of the days. Sequestered in a rustic wood-planked setting (laid out in elegant simplicity by Aaron Sheckler) with furnishings limited to yoga mats and pillows, they are guided in their quest for mindfulness by The Teacher (voiced by Alan Khoutakoun). He instructs them to maintain silence throughout their stay, to be punctual, and to listen reverently to his parables.
For the most part, they comply. (There are distractions and lapses, to be sure, even some committed by The Teacher himself.) It is in their moments of silent expression that these soul-searchers reveal themselves and their agonies with a clarity and intensity that might not otherwise be expressed with words. The baggage that each carries is unpacked with frantic hand movements, gushes of breath, repressed whispers.
In the course of their struggle with silence, we are thus compelled to be more attentive, to immerse ourselves in their issues, and to embrace their challenges.
It is a masterful stroke of artistic vision that Ms. Wohl has fulfilled in creating a play of real depth, insight, and emotional impact. Guided by the steady and sensitive hand of Michael Peck, the actors honor the playwright's intention by executing their roles with remarkable acuity and creating one hundred minutes of penetrating and revelatory theatre.
Jodie Weiss and Katie McFadzen portray partners whose relationship is strained by competing needs. Jesse James Kamps is Jan, a solitary man bearing the weight of a grievous loss, only to be harassed by a damned mosquito. Alex Kass brings self-absorption and sexuality to the role of Rodney, a yoga instructor with a flair for contortion and bending principles. Brianne Massa's free-spirited Alicia seems forlorn, compensating for whatever loss she has suffered by retreating to her smartphone, covertly snacking on candies, and indulging in a toss in the sea. Louis Farber plays Ned, a nebbishy kind of a guy who is seeking order and peace after a year of horrible disruption in his life ~ a series of ordeals about which we learn in a rare moment of verbal expression, delivered with Farber's unique and characteristic handle on pathos.
In the intimate setting that Wohl has created, lodged between the woods and the sea, she has given cause to consider the words of the Buddha that "life is suffering" and that, even in the collective experience of a mindfulness retreat, it is difficult to shake off the loneliness of it all. However, suffering is the price that we pay for striving. And, in the striving ~ to be, as one of the characters opines, at peace in a world at war ~ we come nearer to truth. To these points, in this jewel of a play, Wohl renders the allegory of the traveling toad and the well toad, the moral of which is a prescient reminder of the worth of the quest ~ "that once you see the ocean, you may not return to the well."
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS ~ brilliantly conceived and superbly performed ~ runs through August 24th in the Studio Theatre at Tempe Center for the Arts.