Silence is deafening at a five-day silent retreat in the woods, where the only person supposed to be talking in “Small Mouth Sounds” is the retreat guru. And he talks too much.
He’s no more than an off-stage voice in Bess Wohl’s play that takes graceful leaps between comedy and drama, all the more impressive because so much else is delivered without words. Here’s what he tells his zip-lipped participants as they set out on their inner journey:
“Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself. It is the best kind of vacation. Because after this, you don’t ever have to go back to who you were. And in this spirit, for the length of this retreat unless otherwise specified we shall be observing … silence.”
Plus a whole bunch of rules that the six people, here to bend their minds, will begin to break almost immediately, starting with no cell phones or similar devices. One by one, they reveal themselves with only hand gestures, occasional grunts, laughs and tears. Curiously, this happens not in the sessions with their “teacher” — a disembodied voice of indeterminate ethnicity and obvious ideas writ large. No, the real enlightenment comes when they are on their own, walking the grounds or sitting on yoga mats that serve as beds in the large room they all share.
“Small Mouth Sounds” comes courtesy of Philadelphia Theatre Company, which is not producing a season of its own as it sorts out money challenges and rebuilds under its new artistic leader, Paige Price. The stage company, one of the city’s largest in budget and audience, has announced a full slate of shows it will produce itself beginning this fall, and for now has brought in “Small Mouth Sounds” from the Off-Broadway company Ars Nova. It was a good grab — if you’re going to rev yourself during a break, you may as well bring in something as edgy as “Small Mouth Sounds,” which challenges its actors and the audience, too, with plenty of dialogue that’s nothing more than implied.
“Small Mouth Sounds” could have been an easy SNL skit — the know-it-all retreat leader, the participants seeking something they’ll never fin,d and a lot of fun skewering the concept of self-awareness. But Wohl, who got the idea for the play while attending such a spiritual retreat, takes the concept much further by giving us distinct characters, each with personal baggage.
Ned (Brad Heberlee) — the only one whose personal story is revealed because he approaches the leader privately and spills it out — is a mental wreck with a history of such improbable woe that when he reveals it, all we can do is laugh. (The normally dreadful details we learn about some of these people can be darkly hilarious.) Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) has made an apparently well-known yoga video, is the picture of fitness, and is smug about his Far Eastern sense of self-awareness. Judy and Joan, a middle-aged and interracial lesbian couple (Cherene Snow and Socorro Santiago), lift each other up when they’re not picking each other apart. Jan (Connor Barrett) is a sad enigma who’s trying to get over something we’re not sure of. Alicia (Brenna Palughi) is perhaps 30, a real looker, habitually late and generally annoying. The more we learn about the teacher (the live voice of Orville Mendoza), the more we wonder how deeply he’s spiritually challenged.
Rachel Chavkin, whose dazzling staging propelled the musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” on Broadway last season, directs “Small Mouth Sounds” with a keen sense of the way people behave in awkward situations. You can feel the characters’ pain, sometimes funny and sometimes sad as they attempt deeper understanding on Laura Jellinek’s handsome receding wooden set with Andrew Schneider’s video design outside its ceiling-high windows. They may not gain any understanding by the end of their retreat. But for better or worse, they’ll have a keener sense of the power of connection.
“Small Mouth Sounds,” produced by Ars Nova and presented by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through April 1 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or philatheatreco.org.