In the madness of our daily lives, we may wish that we could abandon our devices and spend a week meditating in the woods and getting high on nature. We would return refreshed, renewed and more certain of our life’s direction.
That’s the premise of Small Mouth Sounds, an ingenious play by Bess Wohl, directed by Shade Murray, at A Red Orchid Theatre. Six strangers (two of them are a couple) arrive at the retreat center for a week of working out their troubles in the woods. From the moment they arrive, the only voice we hear is that of the Teacher (Meighan Gerachis), who welcomes the guests in a lightly accented voice, instructs them on what will happen and what is expected of them. She says, “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself. It is the best kind of vacation. Because after this, you don’t ever have to go back: To who you were.”
The audience is instructed in advance too; the playbill includes a map of the retreat grounds, the daily schedule, and a list of survival tips for attending your first retreat. Bring tissues because you’ll tear up, a water bottle, sunscreen, don’t forget to stretch—and enjoy the silence.
Yes, silence. There’s no dialogue (well, almost no dialogue) and Small Mouth Sounds is silent for most of its 100 minutes. Thus the audience becomes part of the retreat atmosphere. We are hyper-conscious of the sounds of nature. Insects, water, wind. We can tell dawn is breaking after the darkness of night because we hear birds chirping. We can think our own thoughts along with the actors.
When the guests arrive, we know nothing about them. We gradually learn their names but we don’t know their backstories. During the first session, each guest writes his or her intention for the week on a slip of paper. During the final ritual, they burn their intention slips in a brass bowl. But we never know who they are, what their intentions were, or if they achieved them.
One couple—Joan (Jennifer Engstrom) and Judy (Cynthia Hines) seem to be working out some issues in their relationship; perhaps that’s why they’re here. One evening, an emotional Joan says she can’t stand the retreat any longer and leaves for a B&B. She returns the next morning, with a venti Starbucks beverage. Another guest, Ned (Levi Holloway) speaks during an evening Q&A. Despite the Teacher’s admonition to keep questions short, Ned manages to tell most of his life story, including physical and emotional traumas. Rock climbing accident, broken skull, long hospital stay, wife’s infidelity.
Everyone has some kind of trauma. Jan (Lawrence Grimm) constantly beset by mosquitoes, shows Judy a photo. We learn by her few words and their gestures and expressions that it’s a photo of a child; Jan mourns
Alicia (Heather Crisler) arrives late, is loaded with forbidden snacks; she doesn’t relinquish her mobile phone. She apparently is undergoing some sort of romantic crisis.
Even the unseen Teacher suffers from angst. The disembodied voice has a cold and interrupts a lesson to use her phone to deal with a personal problem.
Only Rodney (Travis A. Knight), the golden young man, seems free of crisis. He’s a celebrity yoga instructor (yes, that’s a thing) and performs a perfect sun salutation in the morning. He’s a master of retreat etiquette. Rodney also takes advantage of the clothes-optional-at-the-lake rule. He and Alicia are attracted to each other and disappear for a very vocal encounter in the woods.
The week ends. The guests say goodbye and leave and we leave the theater. Are we enlightened? Amused and bemused perhaps. Because silence can be awkward and a bit uncomfortable as well as eloquent. Wohl’s play satirizes commercialized “spirituality” and the wellness business. You might even be reminded of the finale of “Mad Men,” when Don Draper sits in lotus pose on a grassy meadow, chanting “Om,” and (possibly) thinking of the next commercial he will create.
Murray’s direction of his capable cast maintains appropriate mood and pacing from lively to peaceful and back again. The retreat setting is designed by Kurtis Boetcher, with lighting by Heather Gilbert and atmospheric sound and original music by Jeffrey Levin.
Small Mouth Sounds continues at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., through December 9. Tickets are $30-40 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Buy them here.
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