Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The play begins with six people, only two of whom know each other, arriving for a five-day spiritual course in a rural setting by a lake, led by a guru-like spiritualist we never see who is simply called "Teacher" in the program. They are told to remain silent and refrain from bringing food back to their rooms for fear of attracting the bears in the area. Cell phone usage is only allowed in the parking lot while inside their car with the windows rolled up, and they must make sure they are on time for their various courses and sessions. For 95 minutes we watch these strangers find ways to communicate, (mostly) wordlessly, as they navigate through personal issues over the five days, try to figure out the meaning and relevance of the stories and parables the Teacher tells them, and basically contemplate their past actions while searching for meaning in their lives.
The six individuals include couple Joan (Katie McFadzen) and Judy (Jodie Weiss), who are bickering over directions when we first meet them. We soon learn that Judy is suffering from some unmentioned illness (cancer?) that has had a deep impact on both women. Alicia (Brianne Massa), who shows up late and doesn't follow the rules about cell phone use and having food in your room, is dealing with seemingly traumatic romantic issues that only heighten when she meets fellow attendee Rodney (Alex Kass), a limber and confident yoga instructor whose first action when he arrives is to take off his wedding ring. Then there is Ned (Louis Farber), a lonely, likable, and slightly anxious man who follows the rules and wears his nametag with glee yet, we learn, has recently suffered a series of endless disappointments. Jan (Jesse James Kamps) is a quiet, kind soul who has a precious, framed photo he cherishes and always keeps close by.
On one hand, Small Mouth Sounds is an interesting theatrical exercise with an abundance of charm that allows the audience to see how strangers who are asked not to speak find ways to communicate with each other and, in doing so, allows us to better understand how first impressions are often wrong and sometimes actions truly speak louder than words. The moments of sorrow we glean from the expressions of some of the attendees instill a somber mood that allows us to reflect on our own lives. The small bits of information we learn about each character also provide shared, identifiable experiences.
On the other hand, it's a play with virtually no plot and minimal character development that doesn't truly allow us to fully understand who these people are or the point that Wohl is trying to make, if there even is a point. While we get a sense of what each character is facing and experiencing, nothing really happens and most of the characters don't truly change from the experience. Small Mouth Sounds comes across at times as the result of an assignment or test to write a play where the characters have to communicate non-verbally, but not a fully fleshed out work. I understand that in the published script Wohl has given detailed information for each character in order for the actors to have a better understanding of the individuals they are playing, but the audience only gets a few fragments of information for each character which doesn't exactly help us have a clearer connection to them. We can truly understand what Ned's been through and where he's coming from since Wohl gave him a terrific monologue in which he gives us his entire backstory. Why she opted to only do that for Ned is also puzzling.
But does a play have to have fully fleshed out characters, a plot, and a point in order for it to be successful, or simply enjoyable? Two of playwright Annie Baker's works, The Flick and The Antipodes, both presented by Stray Cat in the past several years, also have minimal plot or character development and have been deemed to be successful plays, and Small Mouth Sounds received several awards. Perhaps Wohl is simply not trying to be as profound as Small Mouth Sounds sometimes suggests and she is simply giving us the opportunity to see how a small group of strangers find a way to connect and deal with their shared experiences with little verbal communication.
Fortunately, director Michael Peck has a cast who are gifted in creating characters with minimal dialogue. They work well in using facial expressions, gestures, and body language to portray their thoughts, though some of the comedy and visual humor is slightly forced at times. As the Teacher, Alan Khoutakoun has a droll and monotone delivery, which works perfectly for the part and Louis Farber delivers Ned's monologue in a humorously and emotionally touching way.
Maci Cae Hosler's character specific costumes help give us additional clues into each person. The lighting from Dallas Robert Nichols and Pete Bish's sound design are incredibly effective in using visual cues and sound effects to provide a clear sense of the area surrounding the retreat. However, while Aaron Sheckler's scenic design is beautiful, with a large back flat of wooden horizontal planks that has a cutout full moon and a sunken wooden stage to delineate the sleeping quarters from the classroom, some of the staging isn't effective, especially the several scenes of the participants in their rooms staged so far downstage in a playing area set lower than the front row that, unless you're sitting in the front, much of the action is hard to see through audience members seated in front of you.
Some may come away from seeing Small Mouth Sounds having had moments of contemplation and reflection, while others may find it a mostly tedious affair with minimal character development and view it as an interesting concept that never truly comes to fruition. I thought it was clear which group I'm in, but that group seems to keep changing the more I think about the play.
Stray Cat Theatre's Small Mouth Sounds, through August 25, 2019, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-227-1766 or by visiting straycattheatre.org
Director: Michael Peck