‘Body Awareness’: Insight and humor in lesbian academia

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Body Awareness” by Annie Baker, produced by Aurora Theatre Company. Director: Joy Carlin. Sets & Lights: Kent Dorsey. Costumes: Christine Dougherty. Composer &  Sound Designer: Chris Houston. Properties: Mia Baxter. Stage Manager: Corrie Bennett.

Phyllis: Amy Resnick. Joyce: Jeri Lynn Cohen. Jared: Patrick Russell. Frank: Howard Swain.

(performance attended Friday, February 3, 2012)

Theatre lovers of the San Francisco Bay area are incredibly fortunate to have a wealth of professional companies, such as the Aurora Theatre Company, committed to bringing us exciting new work. This season, the Aurora is presenting the Global Age Project (GAP), a series of works that “explore life in the 21st century and beyond.” That’s a pretty broad mandate, the value of which is to attract a wide variety of entries. Four plays have been selected to be given staged readings throughout the month of February: for details, click here.

A full stage production of Annie Baker‘s Body Awareness is anchoring the GAP Festival.

(from l to r) Howard Swain, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick and Patrick Russell in "Body Awareness" at Aurora Theatre Company. Photo Credit: Aura Theatre Company.

In Body Awareness, Baker has placed her story  in a very contemporary setting: lesbians  in academia. Phyllis (Amy Resnick) is a professor at a fictional small college campus in Vermont where she lives with her lesbian spouse Joyce (Jery Lynn Cohen), a high school teacher, and Joyce’s difficult son Jared (Patrick Russell), obsessed with meaning in the form of the Oxford English Dictionary, and more than likely burdened with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Baker has perfectly captured the milieu of academic lesbian life in New England. I know this because my lesbian sister is (gay) married to a professor at a small New England college in Eastern Massachusetts, an area known far and wide for its academic and lesbianic glories. Baker’s portrait of this world is spot on, right down to the details of ambivalent Judaism, ambivalent political correctness, ambivalent sexuality, ambivalent scholarship and politically appropriate soup.

It is “Body Awareness Week” on campus and Phyllis (the professor) has organized a series of events. It used to be “Eating Disorders Awareness Week” but Phyllis, a stickler for details and the implications of language, has renamed it.

One of the guests is photographer Frank Bonitatibus (Howard Swain), who specializes in photos of nude women. He is not a pornographer. He travels about the country offering to photograph any woman who asks and these include a full range of types from the elderly to amputees to children (with parental permission, of course). This character is likely inspired by real life photographer Spencer Tunick, whose work has been documented in this film.

When Frank comes to stay in the household, many issues arise, political, intellectual and personal. One spouse offers to pose for a photograph. One spouse is jealous. Jared looks to Frank for fatherly advice. Emotions and opinions run rampant.

Body Awareness is highly entertaining, thoughtful and full of intellectual treats. It is also very funny. At one point, the difficult son accuses his mother: “You’re 55 years old and you have never read Crime and Punishment! … You’re really stupid. You don’t even read the dictionary.” Later, Joyce remarks to a houseguest, “We’re not religious. We’re Jewish.”

Director Joy Carlin has kept things moving swiftly and the actors tell the story with assured clarity. The company is less successful bringing the emotional realities of this family to life, with capable performances that are somewhat brittle and on-the-surface. A notable exception is the work of Patrick Russel as Jared (the son with the possible Asperger’s) who accomplishes a wonderfully subtle and fully realized characterization.

This production is definitely recommended. Body Awareness continues at The Aurora Theatre Company through March 4, 2012. For further information, click here.

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