One of the most potent acting tools is the ability to play against the text. By this I mean that an actor transcends a literal, obvious read of a line on a page to dredge up all that is lurking beneath the words.
Think Vivien Leigh laying bare the fully fractured mind of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire with her haunting entreaty, “I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers.” Or, in film, there’s the famously loaded line in The Graduate, as actor Walter Brooke deploys one perfectly pointed “Plastics” with an opportunistic twinkle of an eye that tidily sums up the head-scratcher that is the American Dream.
What, then, is there to glean when the players are almost entirely stripped of speech? In Small Mouth Sounds, playwright Bess Wohl renders a wry, ingenious look at subtext by pressing the mute button on its characters. Now at PURE Theatre in a new production directed by Rodney Lee Rogers, it gags its actors in a deliciously enlightening way, bringing six random soul-searchers together in the woods at a spiritual retreat to then put a kibosh on all conversation.
The play debuted to critical acclaim in 2015 at New York City’s Ars Nova to then become a silent charmer in regional markets. Now, it makes its Southeastern regional premiere at PURE, which is settling in nicely as the anchor tenant at Cannon Street Arts Center. Clocking in at around an hour and twenty minutes with nary a word between the retreat attendees, the intermission-less production is a slim, sly shush.
And that time flies. It does so first and foremost because, yes, you’re having fun. What’s more, sussing the story lines through the physical interactions of the characters serves to intensify the level of engagement required by an audience. Rather than being spoon fed verbal exchanges, we must piece together the characters’ frustrations and flirtations, disappointments and desires through the gestures, expressions, and actions.
Everyone has elected to spend a week with no banter, booze, or proper beds for their own reasons, which we are left to unpack. An awkward, if affable man named Jan (Laurens Wilson) gamely endeavors to make sense of this strange new world, while a holier-than-thou yoga poseur (Chris McLerrnon) breathes in and out an air of self-actualized sanctimony. His twitchy, agitated bunk mate (Joel Watson) makes moves on a scattered young love interest (Sarah Callahan-Black). At the same time, a couple (Erin Wilson, Edie Allen) navigate a serious health concern.
Weaving the narrative together is the teacher on high (Scott Smith-Pattison), the only character who has a meaty speaking role, and who remains off-stage for the run of the show. He is a giggling, snorting hot mess of a spiritual leader, forever fumbling with smartphones and filling the expectant space with benign anecdotes signifying nothing, whilst the seekers and stumblers before him cling to his every musing, craving and coaxing out meaning.
As audience members, we sleuth out the actions and reactions along with the characters, who assemble and disband, availing of a series of reconfigured benches, which are used as seats, walls and such. This neatly structured, almost choreographed construct coheres nicely thanks to Rogers’ deft direction, as actors shift from group gatherings to sleeping quarters, from stolen moments to sleepless nights. forever assessing the intentions of one another until the gag order is finally lifted.
But it is the acting that propels the production, and makes terrific use of PURE’s ensemble that also folds in a few newcomers to the company. Each cast member holds his or her own in fine, subtle performances that tease out subtext without any text, while also enabling the audience to actively take the journey to get to the heart of whatever matter is at hand.
All in all, Small Mouth Sounds makes for an absorbing, frequently funny foray into all that remains unspoken. It’s a mirth-inflected must-see for anyone seeking enlightenment of the theatrical variety. It also has ample to offer those up for taking in some bemused angles on a few flawed folks not unlike you and me, who may be looking for self-love in all the wrong places.
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