In Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, words are few and far between. The play follows a group of six strangers during a silent retreat, each hoping that a prolonged period of quiet introspection will solve the problems that have brought them together in the first place.
The attendees all carry lingering emotional baggage as they try to disconnect from the real world. Though their individual circumstances vary — Alicia is going through a breakup, while Ned’s life has been turned upside down following a near-fatal accident — they all share something in common.
“They’re all seeking something,” says Rodney Lee Rogers, who is directing PURE Theatre’s upcoming production of Small Mouth Sounds, which opens March 8. “All of the characters are trying to learn to be with themselves. … It’s a very interesting cast of characters, and they’ve all come together to this ashram as people looking to know themselves better.”
Due to the scarcity of dialogue, the unraveling of who these people are and why they are embarking on this retreat will be a slow burn for theatergoers. Bits and pieces of the characters’ stories, struggles, and motivations are mainly revealed through body language and nonverbal communication, rather than grand proclamations and detailed explanations.
And while Wohl has provided lengthy backstories for each of the six characters, that information is confined to the script’s introductory notes for the benefit of the actors to better understand their characters. Some of those details aren’t even explored in the play.
“Generally, in the play, you never get backstory. The actor can kind of know the events, but you never see any of it,” Rogers says. “You never see a lot of the stories that are told about them. So it’s very specific. Who each character is, is very specific. But you’re allowed some room.”
This setup has presented a unique artistic challenge for Rogers, whose main task in rehearsals has been to arrange the play’s dramatic action in a manner that ensures the audience “is looking at the right place at the right time.”
“Sometimes there’s too much going on, and it’s focusing where you want the audience’s eye,” Rogers says. “That’s been the hardest part, is how do we get all the good stuff that we’re finding in the pieces and in the moment and how do we channel them. Because in dialogue, it’s like as soon as someone starts speaking, you look at them. In this, it’s like we need that little glance, we need a little movement, we need stillness in everybody but movement in one person in order to draw your eye.”
“Rodney’s a master at helping the audience focus right where the moments are taking place to move the play along,” says Edie Allen, who plays Judy, a woman recently diagnosed with cancer who is on the retreat at the behest of her partner, Joan.
Although Small Mouth Sounds is mostly set in silence, Allen believes there are plenty of entry points to connect with the characters and their experiences.
“I think even though it’s a silent retreat … every person who sees this play is going to find themselves and their loved ones in it,” she says. “It’s a very touching, very moving, and very funny play.”
And Rogers sees a parallel between the concept of the retreat itself and what audience members will take away from the production.
“I think the goal of the piece is to do the same thing that you would do at an ashram, which is that you go seeking a certain kind of peace, but you walk away with another kind, which is kind of how wonderfully flawed we all are,” he says. “And how that’s the normal, not the exception. I think it’s a delightful piece. It’s very funny, but it really has that kind of joyful ache to it of what it’s like to be alive and what it’s like to struggle.”