SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: A Play Without Words
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company
At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220
Performances: March 7-29 (with previews March 5 & 6), 2020
Ticket Prices: $37
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org
It isn’t often that someone writes a play that requires the actors to take a vow of silence. But that is exactly what happens in Beth Wohl’s play, Small Mouth Sounds (premiered in 2015), when six people in search of themselves – or something or someone other than their themselves – arrive at an upstate New York center for a silent retreat. Small Mouth Sounds was inspired by the author’s own retreat experience.
Naturally, things do not unfold smoothly as each character reveals their special brand of quirkiness or unveils their personal demons. Judy and Joan are a couple – two middle-aged women who are struggling to shoulder the burden of Judy’s cancer diagnosis. Alicia is a young woman who apparently just broke up with someone named Fred; she keeps dialing his number and is constantly distracted by her forbidden cell phone. She is perturbed to discover that she has been assigned a male roommate.
Ned and Rodney are two of the most interesting members of this unlikely collection of people. Ned has had an unimaginable string of bad luck: he fell off a mountain and broke his skull; his wife started sleeping with his younger brother; he started drinking and joined AA only to have his sponsor commit suicide, and his dog got run over by a car. That’s just a small sampling of all that he’s been through. Rodney is a passive aggressive yoga instructor who smugly and silently snubs everyone else, shows off his yoga skills, removes his wedding ring as soon as he arrives, and is the first to strip down for the clothing optional lakeside activities.
Oh yes, there is a bit of nudity – full frontal – and some “herbal tobacco” and Palo Santo wood gets burned onstage. This play is recommended for viewers 18 years and older. But, to get back to the cast, one of the greatest surprises comes in the final scene from the mild-mannered Jan.
This group of seekers comes under the care and watchful eye of a gruff-voiced guru, an unseen and nameless Teacher who coughs and sneezes into her microphone and appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. The audience never sees the Teacher, Marisa Guida, until she comes out to take her bow at the end. Guida is the only character allowed to speak throughout the play.
The marvelous cast consists of Lauren Leinhaas-Cook as Judy (the one with cancer); Jenny Hundley as her partner Joan (the bubbly one who always seems to have a small wrapped candy); Maura Mazurowski as Alicia (the young one with all the bags and baggage – and snacks); Jim Morgan as Ned (the one who has all the bad luck); Adam Valentine as Rodney (the passive-aggressive yoga instructor); and Larry Cook as Jan (the one whose secret I will not reveal here, but about whom I will post a nagging question at the end of this review). What makes them all so marvelous is that, except for a rather long monologue by Ned, and a brief but sharp exchange between Joan and Judy, we learn all we know about these characters through facial expressions, gestures, and a few grunts. In order to successfully carry off a play in which the main characters are all required to take a vow of silence, these actors had to act their butts off!
Running 70 minutes with no intermission, Small Mouth Sounds is set in a yurt-shaped structure with large open windows and chakra symbols painted on the walls. The only furniture is a few backless wooden stools (which Judy emphatically complains about) and some floor pillows. At night, the campers make do with their yoga mats as they fight mosquitos and shiver at the sounds of growling bears and other unknown animals. Actors enter down the center aisle, sometimes rather noisily, and the top of the set extends over the audience making us feel that we are inside the experience – or experiment, which I believe is the word used in the opening seconds – perhaps even in the position of the Teacher.
Joey Luck designed the sound – a variety of ambient sounds including insects and birds and a bear or two, assorted snorts and grunts, and a torrential rainstorm. Rusty Wilson, Irene Ziegler and the cast members contributed voice-overs and other vocals sounds. Sarah Grady’s costumes helped define the characters. This entire delightful production was directed by Laine Satterfield with a balance of structure and freedom that allowed humor to emerge quite naturally. The pacing was unhurried, yet never lagged, and the scenes perfectly captured the juxtaposition of the meditative environment with the characters’ personalities and problems. In her Director’s Note, Satterfield describes how, during their first week of rehearsal, the cast members lived key moments of their characters’ lives and even worked out timelines and bios.
Small Mouth Sounds runs through March 29 in the intimate Theatre Gym at the Virginia Rep Center on West Broad Street. A part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, the play runs in tandem with a series of wellness workshops, Centered Stage, including topics such as meditation and feng shui. The series takes place after the shows on March 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, and 26.
Now, for that question regarding Jan and his secret. . .Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know before you go. . .
So, in the final scene, it is revealed that Jan does not speak English. My question is, how was he able to read his information packet and follow the instructions of the Teacher? Hmm???
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Jason Collins
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