SpeakEasy's "Small Mouth Sounds": Speaking Volumes

The Cast of "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

One can't say enough about SpeakEasy Stage's current production of Small Mouth Sounds, the 2015 play by Harvard grad Bess Wohl. While seemingly simple and direct, in reality this is a profoundly complex treatment with much more to offer than first meets the ear. There is virtually no dialog (in the traditional sense, at least) in what transpires, though as the title suggests there are quite a few sighs, grunts and other non-verbal means of communication. Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, who correctly states that “silence is everything in this play”, it's a brilliantly warped approach to much of the tribal conflict spanning the nation and the world in this age of doublespeak and “fake news”. 
As the work begins, six strangers (whom we will come to know as broken) are seeking refuge and healing through a silent wellness retreat. They are informed by the disembodied voice of “The Teacher” (Marianna Bassham) that they are to embrace the silence, and open their hearts and minds to it. The group consists of a lesbian couple Joan (Kerry A. Dowling) and Judy (Celeste Oliva), the ultra-quiet Jan (Barlow Adamson), the disorganized Alicia (Gigi Watson), the you-tube yoga mentor Rodney (Sam Simahk) and the intensely serious and seriously intense Ned (Nael Nacer). Each harbors secrets that will gradually be revealed as the retreat progresses (or regresses). At one point the teacher and students even reverse roles, as she becomes progressively more unhinged, though in typical yoga classes students are at the mercy of the teacher and are her or his disciples. The play devolves into a parody of wellness movements, both the valuable and the invalid, skewering much of the modern fascination with fashionable trends.

Nael Nacer & Sam Simahk in "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

The playwright has spoken of how we constantly project fantasy on each other, the question of (and quest for) inner peace, and how her play is so much about pain and how we deal with it. She also posits just how temporary and fragile everything is, and how difficult, especially in our times, it is for us to be quiet. In successful retreats, she also observes, finding your inner landscape can teach greater stress tolerance and emotional balance that lasts long after the retreat is over. And all is not sobriety, as there is much humor (such as The Teacher's discovery that the key to enlightenment might just be over-the-counter cold meds). Her frequent response to a crisis is a world-weary “oh, well”. There are numerous hints as to the backstories of these half dozen characters, not to be revealed here, that gradually expose their individual crises. Attention must be paid to SpeakEasy's production which makes up in its formidable actors (all of whom will be familiar to local audiences) and creative contributors what it lacks in verbosity. Each of the cast members, including the never-seen Bassham, are as good as it gets in the acting department, though only Nacer's Ned gets a relatively lengthy monologue when all are asked to write down their “intention”; Ned states his is to breathe and find peace with all of the others. The creative work on hand includes the simple but evocative Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Mary Lauve, Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

The Cast of "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

At the end of the play, one participant references The Teacher's earlier story of how a frog from a small well encounters the vast ocean: “when you see the ocean... you may not be able to return to the well.” After all the others have left, this sole remaining character sits silently waiting for the next lecture to begin. An Australian study concluded that resistance to silence is learned behavior. At one hour and forty minutes without intermission, this play proves this, as well as its own somewhat tongue-in-cheek maxim, “you are not alone”. In the face of such thunderous talent, on page and stage, one can only remain speechless.

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