Review: “Small Mouth Sounds”

Cynthia Hines (L to R), Travis A. Knight and Lawrence Grimm in “Small Mouth Sounds.” (Photo by Mike Hari)

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre,
1531 N. Wells St.
When: through Dec. 9
Tickets: $30-$40
Phone: 312-943-8722

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

They say silence is golden, but in “Small Mouth Sounds” at A Red Orchid Theatre, it only goes so far.

The premise of Bess Wohl’s 2015 play, directed by Shade Murray, is that half-a-dozen troubled urbanites are on a week-long spiritual retreat in the woods near a lake hoping to….well, that’s not totally clear, because one of the things the Teacher (Meighan Gerachis) has each of them do at one point is write down his or her “intent” on a piece of paper. A disembodied voice over a loudspeaker, she greets the six after they enter in ones and twos at the outset of the 100 intermission-less minutes and, not quite sure whether or not to remove their shoes, sit on folding metal chairs lined up across the back of Kurtis Boetcher’s simply designed set.

The Teacher says she has no plan for the week but does set forth the rules. Clothing is optional at the lake. No cell phones are allowed except in the parking lot in your car with the doors closed and windows rolled up. No incense or food is permitted. Beware of bears. There are no refunds. And, most of all, speaking is forbidden.

This forces the characters, who are named only in the program, to communicate non-verbally, which highlights their moment-to-moment interactions and shifting alliances but fails to provide much deeper insight. Only one, Ned (Levi Holloway), gets a long speech, and it is a litany of personal tragedies in the guise of a question to the Teacher about the meaning of life that mostly explains the knit cap he always wears.

Ned is a stickler for the rules, which the others all break to some extent. This causes some friction between him and his cabin mate, Rodney (Travis A. Knight), a toned yoga instructor who seems to be the most at home in this setting and lights some incense that Ned immediately snuffs out. Also, they both are attracted to Alicia (Heather Chrisler), the frazzled latecomer who arrives with too much baggage, is addicted to snacks, and keeps trying to reach someone named Fred, apparently a recent ex, on her cell phone. Needless to say, Rodney has more success with her, though this doesn’t turn out too well.

Alicia’s cabin mate is the mysterious Jan (Lawrence Grimm), who pretty much keeps to himself, scowls most of the time, and is relentlessly pursued by mosquitoes (kudos to sound designer Jeffrey Levin for making them sound oh-so-real). The evening’s most touching incident is the connection he forms with Judy (Cynthia Hines) over the photo of a boy he takes out and kisses.

Judy is on the retreat with her girlfriend Joan (Jennifer Engstrom), and they are squabbling from the start. The essence, we learn when they break the silence rule, is that Judy, who is African American and the nice one, has been diagnosed with cancer, and Joan can’t handle it.

The play takes us through the retreat day by day, with each punctuated by a talk from the Teacher in a lightly accented voice that sounds vaguely East Indian. But she has problems of her own, among them a cold and an issue that repeatedly causes her to have to excuse herself to answer a cell phone ringing in the background. In fact, she becomes increasingly unprofessional, says things that make little sense, and even impatiently wishes that someone would just change.

Some of the characters do change, I guess, but not necessarily for the better. Nor do they seem more enlightened or in touch with themselves. The way “Small Mouth Sounds” is directed and acted, it is almost impossible to tell if Wohl is being serious or satirical. Despite some amusing moments and telling details, it’s not really funny or sharp enough to be a satire. At the same time, the very notion of a spiritual retreat being a form of consumerism is too absurd to be taken seriously, even if it is true.