Ned, a 39-year-old man who works for a nonprofit, has suffered a series of calamities, from prolonged hospitalization to marital infidelity to rampant alcoholism, and has joined a weekend-long, mostly silent spiritual retreat in the hope that it will help him put himself back together. He’s sitting in a session with a match in his hand.
“The teacher starts to play the recorder,” playwright Bess Wohl writes. “Ned has no idea what he’s supposed to do. He’s slightly worried that he’s supposed to set himself on fire. He half raises his hand, wanting to ask another question. The music stops.”
Those are Wohl’s instructions to Ben Beckley, the actor playing Ned in Long Wharf Theatre‘s upcoming production of Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which runs Aug. 30 through Sept. 4. The emotion Beckley is supposed to convey is clear enough. But the fun of the play is that Beckley — and all seven actors, at several points — must convey such emotions mostly without words.
On the other hand, “you’d be surprised at how much people communicate without speaking at all,” said Christine Scarfuto, Long Wharf’s literary manager, who saw Small Mouth Sounds when it ran in New York in 2015. After all, much of our communication with others is nonverbal, as we all know from being in waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, or elevators, or public transportation when a delay is announced. We get a lot of information about people just by observing their behavior.
“Even though they’re not talking as much, you still get a real feel for who they are,” Scarfuto said.
The idea for the play — people seeking some form of spiritual enlightenment or guidance — came from Wohl’s visit to a retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “The playwright went on this silent retreat with a friend of her without knowing that it was going to be a silent retreat,” Scarfuto said. “So after her first night she starting looking around and her playwriting brain turned on, and she thought, ‘this is fascinating.’”
The retreat was a model for how to write a play in which the characters are almost never allowed to speak. “The silence of the play is a wonderful obstacle,” Scarfuto said. “When you don’t have speech, you have to rely on other ways of telling who you are and to connect with other people. And it can be very, very funny, or very sad.”
But that doesn’t mean that the actors become mimes, or Carthusian monks. “It’s super-realistic, actually. It’s very natural,” Scarfuto said. “It’s kind of like you’re watching in a fish tank and you’re seeing what the chemical reactions between the characters are.”
“Yeah, you know, people,” she added, “we’re pretty funny just as we are.”
But Small Mouth Sounds also gets at some real questions about how people search for meaning in their lives. New Age spirituality can be easy to mock, with its crystals and healing vortexes, a use of language that can sound like Buddhism lite. The hypocrisies embedded in it are easy to point out.
In a way, though, it’s also a little too easy, to the point that making fun of it can almost sound self-defensive. Is it really worthy of mockery that people are trying to improve themselves? Is it really better to not try? It’s also easy to mock things that sound profound but aren’t, really. But is it so bad to search for profundity?
Small Mouth Sounds mines the New Age scene for comedy, but takes its questions — and its characters — seriously. In the text of the play, before the drama even begins, Wohl gives the actors their characters’ backstories, which are hilariously written but also underline that these are people with very difficult lives. Some are recovering from terrible situations. Their need for enlightenment, or even just some kind of change, is desperate.
“The stakes are really high for the weekend” of the play’s action, Scarfuto said. The characters come at the spiritual retreat from very different places. Some are old veterans of the scene. For others, it’s their first time. “But all are coming at it with some kind of intense need for change in their lives,” Scarfuto said. “And that’s a very dramatic idea.”
Rehearsals for Small Mouth Sounds began in New Haven last Tuesday, bringing with it an irony that would be at home in the play itself.
“I actually hear them a lot,” Scarfuto said. “You’d think for a largely silent play that wouldn’t be the case, but they’re right above my office.”
Small Mouth Sounds, by Bess Wohl, runs at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Dr., from Aug. 30 to Sept. 24. For tickets and more information, click here.