In Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, six people go to a weekend-long silent spiritual retreat, looking for a chance to change. The idea is that new habits — like not speaking and learning to interact without chatter — will help them foster a different approach to their lives. Their teacher (Orville Mendoza) instructs them by voice-over; his first speech states the rules that will govern the exercise. One participant, Alicia (Brenna Palughi), arrives late and misses out on the instructions. Another, Ned (Ben Beckley), wants desperately to ask for a writing utensil but doesn’t dare.
The situation Wohl explores in Small Mouth Sounds, directed by Rachel Chavkin and playing at Long Wharf Theatre until Sept. 24, lends itself to social comedy. Some characters — such as Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), enhanced by yoga practices — are more in tune with the environment. Others, such as edgy Ned or mosquito-ridden Jan (Connor Barrett), are more uneasy. Still others, such as Alicia or Joan (Socorro Santiago), are apt to burst into tears as their emotional states weigh down on them.
But Small Mouth Sounds also inspires reflection on socialization, since the way we look and how we talk tends to be who we are to others. Take away one of those factors, and how we read others becomes more intuitive, with varying levels of accuracy. Sitting facing us on a row of chairs, the cast, in its diversity, looks like a sampling from almost any New York city subway ride. By the time the initial session is over and the six, some armed with camping lanterns, find places to unroll their bed mats, we might feel we know them as types. There’s a bit of active sleuthing in trying to parse what lies behind the attitudes we observe.
The plot points, as they arrive, involve small corrections, by the audience and by the characters, as to what is going on with different people. The entire cast does a great job putting across persons who have one thing, at least, in common: their willingness to give this vow of silence a try. Cherene Snow’s Judy is particularly strong at registering a stoical sense of possibility, and her burgeoning friendship with Jan, who seems generally sympathetic to others, creates a shifting of alignment. Similarly, Ned’s efforts to get close to Alicia, despite Rodney, smack a bit of Woody Allen, albeit a silent version of him. There is comedy and drama in their interactions, helped by the neediness of Palughi’s Alicia and the smug concentration of Chin-Lyn’s Rodney. What we see is tempered by the sense that what happens on retreat stays on retreat.
In the characters’ backgrounds there is ample evidence of relationships gone awry, of illness and injury, untimely death, and the heartbreaking mishaps that make people look for answers. Wohl and Chavkin envelop the characters in a deep sense of human dignity — which includes very insouciant nudity from Chin-Lyn — then snip away at each character’s comfort zone to produce the friction that makes for theater. Some ideas land better than others.
The best feature of the play is its meditative quality. In the silence, we are thrown, like the characters, upon our own inner resources. Mike Inwood’s lighting design is key, as pointed illumination helps us to notice things we should when we should. Stowe Nelson’s sound design, Noah Mease’s prop design, and Andrew Schneider’s video design are also vital contributions. The play demands a different kind of attentiveness than most productions and, as an adaptable human, you might find yourself preferring silent interactions — which tend to be direct and economical — to the long-winded wordiness of most plays. When, a little before the show’s midpoint, Ned goes into a long monologue framed as a question to the teacher, the barrage of words may seem a great imposition.
The content of Ned’s speech is important for what Wohl’s play is getting at: the need for change. Not simply as individuals with our individual problems, but collectively, as a species. Later, when the teacher begins to lose patience, we may hear a loss of faith in the virtue of inner peace and higher consciousness. We may also hear a playwright trying to prod an audience.
People go on retreats, people go to theater, looking for what? A connection to others, some insight into the human condition, a psychic break from whatever their lives have become? When it’s over, they go back — sometimes quite gratefully — to the status quo. But what if the status quo can’t be sustained?
Small Mouth Sounds runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr., until Sept. 24. Click here for tickets and more information.
See Lucy Gellman’s review of Small Mouth Sounds in the Arts Paper here.