By Karen Isaacs
Take a diverse group of people with some secrets and bring them together; it is a classic pattern for fiction and drama. Think about Grand Hotel, any ship or disaster film, even many war movies.
Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds now at Long Wharf adds a unique twist to this story. Yes, she brings together six people only two of whom know each other. Each has a distinct backstory including some problems and some secrets. She puts them in a closed environment, in this case a week long “retreat”.
The twist is that this environment asks them to observe silence.
Can you have a play with very little dialogue?
The answer is definitely yes, but it did, at the end, leave me unsatisfied.
The plays starts with six of the attendees arriving one by one (except for the two women who know each other), and taking their chairs waiting for the retreat to start. Then comes the disembodied voice of the leader, who sets down the rules which includes no cell phones, outside food. and silence. Plus also a clothing option lake for swimming. One attendee arrives late disturbing the others.
We skip through the week – from the first night as the uncoupled attendees are paired off for sleeping, to surreptitious use of cell phones, snacks and some nude swims.
Most of the communication is through gestures and facial expressions; periodically attendees speak and the teacher offers instruction and guidance.
It becomes the task of the audience to interpret the various interactions and the clues to flesh out who these people are and why they are attending.
It’s not a totally successful process since you often only get a general idea of this. For example, Jan (played by Connor Barrett) who is the first attendee, does not speak. The only hint he really provides is a photo (which I could not see clearly) that he carries with him and puts by his sleeping area. Who is the person? Where is the person? You never know.
Others provide more guidance, we can figure out that Joan and Judy are a couple and that Judy is battling cancer while Joan is the caregiver, with all that entails. Actually we get that from some of the minimal dialogue.
We can recognize that Rodney is confident; when he enters, he selects a space to do some yoga exercises that is almost directly in front of Jan. He is also the one who encourages the nude swimming.
But for some of the others, all we get are generalizations and stereotypes. What dialogue there is, provides most of the plot.
Nothing tremendous happens during the week long retreat. The six participants do seem to bond in some way, some people are hurt and some are granted forgiveness.
At almost two hours, Small Mouth Sounds sometimes seems long and other times it moves quickly.
You may be surprised at how much empathy you develop for many of the characters, particularly Ned who has had a run of Job-like disasters, annoyed at Rodney and confused by the teacher’s disembodied voice. For we even learn somethings about him.
Playwright Bess Wohl has given the actors a difficult task which they handle beautifully with the help of director Rachel Chavkin.
You will come away from Small Mouth Sounds further convinced that people, no matter where they are or who they are, are more alike than different. And that we can understand each other no matter what language we speak.
To be reminded of that at a time when so much of our words lack civility is uplifting.
Tickets are available at Long Wharf.