What if the true path to inner calm and enlightenment was through silence? This is the question that faces six troubled souls who have signed up for an intense meditation and healing session in a rural retreat in Bess Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds, running through May 4th on the Drury Stage. At this New Age seminar in the woods, the participants will hear lectures from a slightly unbalanced self-actualizing guru. There will be question and answer periods. And there will be swimming in the nearby lake. But there will be no talking. How will they cope for five days without saying a word?
The two hours audiences spend watching these emotionally exhausted people trying to access their best selves, while navigating everyday problems and confronting existential questions -- in silence -- is unlike any other theater experience. Madison Theatre Guild’s last production of the season is a study in non-verbal communication and the universal language of charades. Deftly directed by Dana Pellebon, it features a truly remarkable cast that manages to speak volumes through smiles, primal sounds, gasps, fits of tears, and many more full body reactions. Audiences will be amazed at the things they learn without traditional language. It’s a production not to be missed.
As Jan, Whitney Derendinger is relentlessly happy, giving vigorous waves “hello” to everyone, and keeping his eyes wide and gaze uplifted, as eager to please as a cocker spaniel. But rather than battling his inner demons, Jan has to fight swarms of mosquitoes while journaling his thoughts outdoors by the lake. Watching him swat at the airborne pests is amusing, but seeing Derendinger stretch, rub, scratch and twist his body to try to find some relief from their itchy welts is priceless. Any survivor of a Wisconsin summer camping trip will feel his pain and frustration. His interactions with Judy (Jamie England) are both comical and heartbreaking, as he consoles her and they try to connect. And the ending twist for Derendinger’s character is genius.
The most compelling story in Small Mouth Sounds is the fraught relationship between Joan (Autumn Shiley) and Judy (Jamie England). A couple that is clearly going through a heart wrenching rough spot, we can see from their posture and facial expressions that this retreat was proposed as a solution by one, and the other is going along grudgingly. Their dynamics as a couple are firmly established through a short spoken conversation at the top of the show, but then carried through very clearly for the rest of the play without words. Shiley and England have fantastic chemistry, even as their relationship suffers blow after blow. And England’s moment of realization when she reads a private note that her partner wrote is simply stunning.
The two characters who provide most of the comic relief in the show are the yoga instructor Rodney (a zen Brian Belz) and the physically encumbered and cellphone addicted Alicia (a slightly neurotic Erin McConnell). Belz is generally at one with the universe in a lotus position and at one with nature in various stages of undress. Perfectly in touch with his inner calm, his free spirit and rituals regularly annoy the other guests -- and drive his roommate Ned (a staggering Nick Kaprelian) to the verge of violence. On the other end the mental health spectrum is Alicia, who destroys calm with her every movement. Her bracelets jangle. She fiddles with her jam-packed backpack continuously. Though cellphones and snacks in the cabins are prohibited, she spends half the play holding her phone aloft, looking for a signal, and the other half rummaging around in her purse for Tic Tacs and bags of chips. Underneath all her layers of “stuff,” clothing and clumsiness, McConnell’s character is suffering from a bad break-up -- which she tries to soothe with both a cathartic rage voicemail to her ex and some rebound attention from one of her fellow meditaters. When her inevitable one night stand turns out to be just that, her sense of betrayal takes many hilarious forms.
Unlike the other characters, Ned (Kaprelian) gets a monologue halfway through the show to explain his Job-like circumstances and his desperation to find some peace in a life that has completely fallen apart. It’s a nice break to hear a character speak for himself, even if his convoluted life story contains questions that have no answers. Kaprelian communicates Ned’s confusion and despair in way that is poignant, while making his determination to go on a Herculean feat.
Much like the minimal approach to the text, Bob Moore’s set is minimal and versatile, providing all the audience needs to understand the feel of the spa in just a few lit panels and two levels. Sound design by Tom Coyne also sets the mood specifically, with lots of gentle water sounds.
The unseen guru, simply called “Teacher” is played by Ari Pollack, speaking into a mic from backstage. The conceit, obvious from the beginning, is that this spiritual guide is a fraud. Far from calm and encouraging, he’s having his own nervous breakdowns and crises of faith in his methods, and is frequently short with the spa guests, or high on cold medicine -- hardly the beacon of strength and self-knowledge the participants are looking for. While it’s supposed to be a funny juxtaposition, the character is more often grating and off-putting. His speeches to the group are the least interesting parts of the play.
Director Dana Pellebon has a terrifically talented cast of actors to work with and it’s clear that the group has worked a lot on the non-verbal storytelling -- much of it is fascinating to watch. But these sections could use a little editing. This production of the play clocks in at two hours, where other iterations have told the story in as little as 80 minutes. Although it’s clearly hard to hem in such creative actors, killing some of the silent storytelling darlings and picking up the pace a bit would benefit the production as a whole.
So, could you be silent for days and still have some of the most important conversations of your life? Small Mouth Sounds proves that you can. Go see it and learn a whole new language.