The Theater Up Close series at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center includes a novel offering this season: a touring production of Bess Wohl’s Obie Award-winning play “Small Mouth Sounds.”
South Florida’s jam-packed, homegrown theater scene doesn’t often play host to an Off-Broadway hit restaged by its original director, in this case Rachel Chavkin, who got a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway staging of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.”
But “Small Mouth Sounds” is special in another way too: Its dialogue is scant, extremely so, and its story of six disparate souls trying to connect with their deeper selves during a five-day spiritual retreat is told largely through the expressive “sounds” of silence.
At this point, you may be thinking, “A 100-minute play filled with silence? No thanks.” But keep in mind one of novelist Lawrence Durell’s lines in “Justine,” an observation that hints at the richness of Wohl’s play: “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”
Wohl’s play is a comedy laced with poignant moments and revelatory ones. “Small Mouth Sounds” makes good-natured fun of such retreats, of teachers who mellifluously deliver thought-provoking allegories then tell the students — who have paid handsomely for this enlightenment — that perhaps they are the teachers, and he’ll learn from them.
Rules are laid out (including no cellphone use except in cars, no candles or incense, no food in the rooms because the bears in the surrounding woods are drawn to man-made buffets), and over the course of the retreat, every rule is broken because, you know, unplugging is hard and some people just want to do what they want to do when they want to do it, rules be damned.
Six seekers are part of this particular retreat, and in bits and pieces we learn more about their natures than their biographies.
▪ Ned (Ben Beckley), the first to arrive, has had a lengthy run of bad luck, including a shattered skull, a now ex-wife who had an affair with his brother and losing his house in a fire. Nonetheless, he seems eager and open, if a little scattered.
▪ Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), tall and handsome and extremely flexible, obviously knows his way around a yoga mat. He smiles a lot even as he radiates smug superiority from every pore on his chiseled body. Silently aggressive, he’ll get in anyone’s space or face. He likes to get naked. And he does.
▪ Jan (Conor Barrett) is a mystery man with a serious beard and a personal chemistry that makes him irresistible to mosquitoes. He’s empathetic even as he’s dealing with grief, and when the participants are asked to write down a statement of their intentions for the week, Jan begins scrawling what could become a novel.
▪ Judy (Cherene Snow) and Joan (Socorro Santiago) are a longtime couple, fussing over trivial things as they arrive. Judy, who finds it tough to unplug, is also (as it soon becomes obvious) battling a painful cancer. Joan is the one, though, who tends to dissolve into tears.
▪ Alicia (Brenna Palughi) is an attractive young woman in the intense throes of a breakup. As she writes down her intention, her mood is obvious from her fierce gum chewing and the jiggling of one foot. Routinely, she manages to break two rules at once in the stark sleeping quarters she’s forced to share with Jan, texting under the covers and chowing down on potato chips from Trader Joe’s.
▪ The Teacher (Orville Mendoza) mostly appears as a soothing disembodied voice. But his occasional flareups of annoyance and an intrusive personal crisis make it clear that the quest for a Zen state is never ending.
The drama, silent and spoken, plays out on Laura Jellinek’s sleek set, which moves backwards to make room for “bedrooms” defined by designer Mike Inwood with rectangles of light. Video designer Andrew Schneider supplies an evolving look at the woods outside, from an inconvenient deluge pelting vibrantly green leaves to a glorious sunrise that comes way too early for these city-folk seekers.
Stowe Nelson’s vital sound design supplies the rest of the world surrounding this man-made haven: the splashing water of the lake, the chirping of birds during the day and crickets at night, the roaring of a bear just off stage right just as another human-made roar is taking place off stage left. Tilly Grimes’ costumes communicate other clues about the characters’ circumstances and lifestyles.
Because “Small Mouth Sounds” does a good deal of its communicating nonverbally, each audience member’s interpretation of the play and its silences is likely to vary.
But Wohl, director Chavkin and an expressive cast whose performances have been finely honed over months of touring are powerful communicators. They make it clear that the character flaws, personal losses and life challenges that compel us to turn inward constitute invisible but very real baggage. And that unpacking that baggage, particularly in a hyper-connected world that drowns out the sounds of silence, will take more than the fast fix of a five-day spiritual tune-up.
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If you go
▪ What: “Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl.
▪ Where: Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
▪ When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through March 4.
▪ Cost: $50 and $55.
▪ Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.