Annie Baker landed on several year-end Top 10 lists with her 2010 play Circle Mirror Transformation. But before that, her Drama Desk-nominated 2009 play Body Awareness marked her as a young playwright to watch.
Fort Lauderdale’s Island City Stage has chosen Body Awareness as its newest co-production with Empire Stage. Though the play itself veers from interesting to odd and from baffling to insightful, the production is another winning effort from Island City and Empire.
Director Michael Leeds gets fine, rich performances from Janet Weakley and Merry Jo Cortada as Joyce and Phyllis, a lesbian couple in a small Vermont college town; Clay Cartland as Joyce’s smart, testy son Jared; and David R. Gordon as Frank, a visiting photographer whose images of nude women and girls are being displayed during the college’s Body Awareness Week.
Phyllis (Cortada), a psychologist, is in charge of the event, and she and Joyce have invited Frank to stay in their cozy home (the work of set designer Michael McClain). So it strains credulity when feminist Phyllis goes ballistic after she discovers the nature of Frank’s photographs. Really, she didn’t know?
She’s also nervous because she suspects that high school teacher Joyce, who was married to Jared’s dad, is attracted to Frank. Joyce, who is in her first lesbian relationship, reassures Phyllis more than once. But then she begins toying with the idea of posing for Frank.
Jared’s volatile presence ratchets up the tension for everyone. Whether or not Jared has Asperger’s Syndrome — Phyllis and Joyce are certain he does, while Jared angrily rejects their opinion — it isn’t easy to live with the 24-year-old autodidact, whose obsessive self-education consists of reading the dictionary. Jared’s problems with empathy lead to troubles at his minimum-wage McDonald’s job, offensive comments at home and, eventually, to a far more serious problem as he sets out to get a girlfriend.
Though Cartland’s interpretive choices are limited by the way Baker defines the character, his fiery, intense Jared is one more memorable portrait in the young actor’s gallery. Cortada captures Phyllis’ inflexibility and insecurity, while Weakley makes Joyce a battle-scarred nurturer. Gordon, unsettling as Frank doles out romantic advice to Jared, keeps the audience guessing as to whether Frank is the exploitative creep of Phyllis’ imagination or an anything-goes artist.
In Body Awareness, Baker explores political correctness, jealousy, family dysfunction and more, too much more. Its final image, though, is a sweet and hopeful one. And the Island City-Empire cast keeps the journey to that moment intriguing.