Searching for Meaning with Annie Baker in "Body Awareness"

 Jamie England and Samara Safarik in KRASS's production of "Body Awareness."

Jamie England and Samara Safarik in KRASS's production of "Body Awareness."

Back before the much celebrated playwright Annie Baker invited us to a community center drama class in her play Circle, Mirror, Transformation, and before she brought us to the run-down movie theater of her Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Flick, she made her off-Broadway debut with Body Awareness, a fairly conventional comedy set on a quaint, very PC college campus in Vermont. Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre is presenting this intricate and intelligent one-act, which is onstage at the Bartell through April 7th. Ably directed by Jeanne Leep, it’s a study in language and the creation of meaning, set within a family drama rife with complicated relationships and misunderstandings. Funny, challenging, and at times heartbreaking, the play gently pokes fun at the verbal and mental gymnastics we go
through to say what we mean, to be understood, and to assert our own voices.

The play is structured around “Body Awareness Week” — formerly known as “Eating Disorders Week” — at a small liberal arts college in New England, where Phyllis (an often smug and judgmental Samara Safarik) teaches psychology. She addresses the students and introduces special guest artists on each day of programming that examines self-image and celebrates women’s bodies, liberated from the male gaze. But each morning when she takes the podium, she unravels a bit more, losing control of a narrative that she thought she had reclaimed. Cursing the slippery language and meaning that Phyllis thought she had mastered, during one poignant moment she moans, “If there’s no right answer. . . Why does the dictionary even exist?”

And the dictionary plays a prominent role in the show, since Jared (an angry and abrasive Mark Kennedy) is constantly reading the OED. The adult son of Phyllis’s partner Joyce (a struggling but warm Jamie England), Jared has been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum that manifests in misunderstanding social cues, an apparent lack of empathy, very literal thinking, and a deep fascination with a limited number of subjects. (Set in 2007, the play takes place in a world where neuro-atypical people were much less accepted.) He bitterly denies that there’s anything wrong with him (he equates the condition with being “retarded”) but unquestionably has trouble navigating normal conversations, controlling his temper, and understanding the opposite sex. Baker’s use of a character who literally understands language completely differently is genius — and often very
funny in this story about multiple meanings.

But Body Awareness Week really goes awry when Phyllis and Joyce host a visiting artist in their home; the mildly subversive photographer Frank, played with a crusty edge by Bob Curry. He is an old school guy’s guy with a hippie vibe who specializes in taking naked photos of girls and women. While Joyce finds them beautiful and affirming, Phyllis denounces them as exploitative and misogynist. Meanwhile Jared is struggling to understand when nudity is sexy, when it’s beautiful, and when it’s threatening. Their reactions to this man launch each member of the family into his/her own orbit and make them question further why they can’t communicate effectively with one another.

The cast is universally strong, which helps the piece immensely. As Phyllis, Samara Safarik has the most emotional ground to cover — floundering professionally and philosophically at the college, while trying to navigate a minefield of personal relationships at home, her character swings from shrill to silly, while also revealing a tender vulnerability underneath her ultra-feminist dogma. Jamie England’s Joyce suffers as the caregiver who is too often taken for granted and emotionally beaten up by those she loves. England physically manifests the stress of being in the middle of compounding disagreements, and shudders as if something broke inside her when she realizes that her son may have put one of her high school students in danger. And as Jared, Kennedy is all hard edges. Physically imposing and rigid in his
routines, he is smart and defiant, but all too aware of his own shortcomings. His lack of eye contact with other characters and small, self-soothing gestures were measured and appropriate — and appreciated by those of us who are very familiar with spectrum behaviors.

Although the show has some plot holes, and after opening a Pandora’s box of personal and universal questions, Baker ties up the ending much too neatly, it’s still a satisfying journey. The characters are flawed, confused, angry, and doing their best. Their allegiances shift as their understanding of one another morphs from scene to scene. Pushed a tad toward satire, they are slightly exaggerated versions of people we all know. And their frustration with language, paired with their desperation to be understood also feels sadly relatable.

Visually, B.J. Ford’s set design includes some beautiful poplar trees in the background and snow effects to open and close the show, but they seemed strangely disconnected from the story. On the other hand, the costume design, by Tracy Bossinger was both clever and on point, placing the characters very specifically in each of their own worlds.

Though Body Awareness is a very different kind of play than Baker’s more famous, recent creations—written decidedly before she discovered the power of the pause — it is a smart, deceptively light treatment of heavy questions, and an interesting way to chart the evolution of a writer’s voice.

An edited version of this review will appear on Isthmus. com.