Review: ‘Small Mouth Sounds’ at A.C.T. (***1/2)

by Charles Kruger

From L to R: Ben Beckley as Ned, Brenna Palughi as Alicia, Connor Barret as Jan, Edward Chin-Lyn as Rodney, Cherene Snow as Judy, and Socorro Santiago as Joan in Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds” at A.C.T. Photo Credit: A.C.T.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The program for “Small Mouth Sounds” features an article titled, “The Meditation Market,” which reminds us that, in America at least, mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality are big business. It is an area of modern life that cries out for a theatrical treatment, and playwright Bess Whol has responded to that cry with a charming and unusual ensemble piece.

The premise of Whol’s unusual play is that we are observing six meditators who have paid for a silent mindfulness retreat under the direction of a famous meditation teacher. They will live together in a dormitory, in silence, for several days, attending guided meditations daily where they will hear lectures from the teacher.

What makes the play unusual is that it is, indeed, almost entirely silent. We observe the six meditators as they communicate with each other in silence, form and explore relationships, and react to the teacher and each other. We hear just enough from each of them to gather a few details of their back stories, but mostly we must figure it out by watching their silent interactions.

Even though the play is ostensibly about a meditation retreat, the silence here is not the meditative, spacious silence one might encounter in the plays of Annie Baker or Samuel Beckett. To the contrary the actors perform elaborate pantomimes with avariety of props and, though silent, are very much engaged with one another. The expressions of love and rage, irritation, desperation, hopelessness and enthusiasm are varied and entertaining. “Small Mouth Sounds” is a comedy about some serious matters. It is both funny and ultimately quite moving.

As it turns out, each character has a lot to deal with including serious illness, major life losses, struggling marriages, and more. Even the meditation teacher, it turns out, has secrets that are gradually revealed.

The premise of a group of strangers encountering each other in a closed space where they must remain for days is not at all original, and the stories they reveal are pretty typical fare. But the gimmick of playing out the stories in almost complete silence is highly original, and the result is highly entertaining.

“Small Mouth Sounds” is not a deep play, but has many moments both moving and funny, an excellent cast, and a highly original set up that makes it much more than the sum of its parts.

The National Tour of the original off-Broadway production of “Small Mouth Sounds” plays at A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre through December10, 2017. For further information, click here.

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Rating:  ***1/2 (For an explanation of Theatrestorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Small Mouth Sounds”, by BessWohl, produced by A.C.T.Director: Rachel Chavkin. Scenic Designer: Laura Jellinek. Costume Designer: Tilly Grimes. Lighting Designer: Mike Inwood. Sound Designer: Stowe Nelson. Props Designer: Noah Mease. Video Designer: Andrew Schneider. 

Cast:

Jan: Connor Barrett. Ned: Ben Beckley. Rodney: Edward Chin-Lyn. Teacher: Orville Mendoza. Alicia: Brenna Palughi. Joan: Socorro Santiago. Judy: Cherene Snow. 

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