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Small Mouth Sounds had its world premiere in 2015 by an off-Broadway company called Ars Nova. In 2015, it moved to another off-Broadway venue, Signature Theatre, and went on national tour from 2017-2018. Spirit Gum originally scheduled their own production to perform in 2021, but, derailed by COVID-19 – like so much else – Small Mouth Sounds opened May 6, 2022, and it felt like just the right time.
The story of six escapees from everyday life to a silent retreat led by the Teacher, Small Mouth Sounds takes place in deep woods that are anything but silent.
Three things about this production that stand out are: the volume of information we can get about people without them saying a word; how effectively sound (other than words) can act as a container for presence, ritual, and feeling; and the universality of human suffering and resilience.
Directed by Cindy Gendrich, the acting was excellent across the board. Spirit Gum, led by a seemingly fearless group of creatives, consistently finds the right talent for the right role.
The characters are absolutely not stereotypes, but as one who has attended many spiritual retreats – as both a leader and a participant – I can safely say that all of the "types" depicted here will show up at one time or another.
The effective sound design by Michael Ackerman enfolded the actors as they entered the stage in ones and twos, carrying their retreat handbooks, their yoga mats, backpacks, and other small possessions.
Otterbacher’s Jan appears first, genial, modest, making himself comfortable in a chair, and taking stock of his surroundings.
Lerner’s Rodney, who I could not stop thinking of as "Yoga Boy," first sits in a chair, then thinks better of it and moves to the floor where he can sit cross-legged and assume a meditative pose. Rodney is decked out in all the yoga regalia: wrist malas, complicated necklaces, and spiritually smug attitude. This is not his first rodeo – in more ways than one, we are to discover.
Emerson’s Joan and Shillito’s Judy enter, chatting with some urgency, find chairs, and settle in.
After Furr’s Ned, who one character calls "Hat Man," makes his reticent way in, the Teacher begins to lead the retreat.
The unseen Teacher is the only character with a significant number of lines, and every one is a corker. Imagine, if you will, a cross between a benevolent wise woman and an insult comic. Harrington’s rich, singer’s voice was up to the task of this omniscient, omnipotent character. She set the tone for all that was to come in this opening scene.
After Teacher lays out the rules of engagement – no smoking, no alcohol, no phones, clothing optional at the lake, etc. – for the retreat, in stumbles Stone as Alicia, the needy straggler with her bundles of metaphorical and literal baggage.
Alicia, adorable and neurotic, gets thrown in with a roommate she hadn’t anticipated. She sneaks snacks and steals forbidden time on her cell phone. “Hot mess” adequately describes her, and Stone brought all of her physical comedy skills to the role.
Alicia’s not the only snack-sneaker. Everything that happens is the play is both surprising and predictable. Going on retreat and agreeing to give up our beloved stuff and habits is a challenge for almost everybody. Rodney does a good job of pretending to be prepared for the deprivation. Ned displays willingness. Jan is pretty sanguine for the most part; turns out he has a good reason to be. But everybody hits a wall on retreat, and everybody has to face themselves.
At bedtime, we learn more about Joan and Judy. Judy takes prescription pills before bedtime and on awakening, but what does that mean? One of the two women weeps in her sleep.
On Day Two, the retreatants write intentions and wander in the woods. Mosquitoes assault Jan. Ned, Joan, Alicia, and Rodney jump in the lake. In a wonderfully primal display, Lerner’s Rodney models how to ferociously scare off a bear, or does he?
When the Teacher tells how her teacher in Nepal had his students meditate on a charnel ground, a place where dead bodies are piled up and left to decompose, someone bursts into tears.
On Day Three, Ned defies the rules and tells his whole life story – for context – and then forgets his question. This bit is heartbreaking and hilarious, and serves to delineate all of humanity’s pain and suffering.
As his sister/fellow retreatants become increasingly relaxed, Rodney seems to become increasingly tense, his mudra-hands turning into clenched fists.
Joan and Judy have a mostly silent fight, and one of them takes off. Two of the retreatants have a collision of the carnal, not charnel, kind.
In other words, this intentionally peaceful, silent retreat devolves into emotional chaos. It’s both inevitable and deliciously shocking.
Even while the playwright makes fun of the characters’ flaws, she never really seems to judge them. Spirit Gum’s production of Small Mouth Sounds makes us love these nutty, exasperating – sometimes loving and kind – folks who are all just trying to find relief from their personal pain. They don’t really seem, after all, to be that much different from the rest of us.
Go see it. You’ll most likely see yourself and be reminded that you are not alone.
Small Mouth Sounds continues through Sunday, May 15. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.