There is something unsettling about six people sitting in silence and staring out at the audience. It’s not a comforting opening stage image in A Red Orchid’s “Small Mouth Sounds.” I witnessed a good amount of people shifting in their seats at the performance I attended last Friday, and I have since wondered what inspired such nervousness. Perhaps silence onstage is interminable to people who have paid to take in dialogue, well-rehearsed and cleverly written. After all, it used to be said that audiences came to “hear” a play, not “see” it. A darker option is this: sitting in our own silence is the last thing we want to do. Little is spoken in “Small Mouth Sounds,” but a great deal of truth is communicated, whether we are ready to hear it or not.
To a person, the characters in this production are dealing with a great amount of pain. They may not speak it, but they express it in every gesture and connection they share with one another. Each has arrived at a wooded silent retreat hosted by an elusive Teacher (Meighan Gerachis), whose disembodied voice encourages them to let go of their baggage, and in fact, teach her how to live. Jan (Lawrence Grimm) is beset by troublesome flies, and can find no relief. Rodney (Travis A. Knight) seems to be a yogi whose comfort with his own surroundings irks Ned (Levi Holloway), a man so uncomfortable in his mind and spirit that he cannot find his way to asking an actual question at a Q & A session. Joan (Jennifer Engstrom) and Judy (Cynthia Hines) are struggling with health and marital issues, while Alicia (Heather Chrisler) arrives late, troubled by what seems to be a break-up. She seeks solace in focusing on the Teacher’s words, while also snacking endlessly on junk food in her cabin.
Bess Wohl’s script focuses on action in the purest sense. From time to time, characters break their vow of silence, but often, they must find ways to communicate without words. When Ned wants to tell Alicia she is beautiful, he must do so through gesture, and we as an audience must interpret what he is expressing. The audience is given no outs. Attention is required in all moments, big and small. That is no easy task, but it is an incredibly rewarding one. It is as if we in the audience are on a silent retreat with the characters, examining our own circumstances and surroundings right alongside them. While music is not a key part of the experience, in many ways watching this play felt like spending an evening at the symphony. One’s mind wanders while focusing on the rain and thunder of Jeffrey Levin’s sound design, and one connects dots about one’s own lived experiences while watching performers struggle to express their deep anguish and loss. By the time two characters are standing together, simply breathing in rhythm, the play has washed over you, taken you out of your head in order to place you back there in reinvigorated form once the lights dim. Only music — or the music of silence — can accomplish that.
Director Shade Murray ups the ante by staging moment of profound connection simultaneously with moments of humor and loneliness. The rhythm of this piece never slogs because he allows each actor to live in their current state without shortchanging what might be happening in another cabin on the opposite side of the stage. He encourages moments of humor and humanity that might be missed by a more impatient artist.
Listening is one of the hardest things to do onstage, and this ensemble must not only focus on their scene partners, but on what occurs elsewhere onstage. They do a wonderful job building an entire world of tension, and the small mouth sounds they do make only reveal more of their crises. Hines and Grimm share a particularly lovely moment bonding over the unfairness of living, while Engstrom excels at expressing possibly undue reverence for their Teacher. Chrisler’s flashes of anger and stubbornness resonate, while Knight makes the most of a moment of truth where he simply puts on a piece of jewelry. Holloway perhaps spends the most time alone, and ends up serving as the audience surrogate, confused by his surroundings, and just trying to figure out the bigger picture. Gerachis does a fine job vacillating between empty profundities and personal overshares that mark her a suspect guide for this journey.
At one point, the Teacher tells her retreaters that they may be in pain, but that they are not alone. Whether in joy or grief, struggle or triumph, they are not alone. Wohl and Murray and the performers might as well be talking to the audience in that moment. Instead, the performers look out at us, and look at each other. And rather than being unnerving, the moment provides comfort. They are not alone because we are sitting with them. We are not alone because they are looking at us. If there is a lovelier statement to be made about why we should go see a play, rather than hear one, I can’t think of it.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A symphony of silence asks us to examine our lives.
DIE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”
Show: “Small Mouth Sounds”
Venue: A Red Orchid Theatre (1531 N Wells St)