A Rare Retreat Into Theatrical Silence With “Small Mouth Sounds”
Small Mouth Sounds, which recently began its two week run in the Lake Worth Playhouse’s black-box Stonzek theatre, is a critically acclaimed play by Beth Wohl that premiered off-Broadway in 2015. And it has perhaps been most remembered and most remarked upon for the fact that a significant portion of the show’s action takes place in total silence.
This is because its setting happens to be a five day spiritual retreat, in which the characters are instructed to “observe silence” in the hopes of achieving some greater measure of enlightenment. However, most of them seem to be hoping less for nirvana than simply solace—as Wohl specifies in the play’s opening notes:
“Everyone in this play is in some kind of agony. In this way, they are not unlike the rest of us.”
While one character, Ned, gets a chance to articulate the particular causes of his despair during a Q and A session with his spiritual teacher that’s an exception to the “silence” rule, for the other five, we’re only given vague but tantalizing hints as to what may have driven them to such extreme measures to seek relief.
A middle-aged lesbian couple, Joan and Judy, seem to be grappling with a serious illness on one’s part that threatens the future of their relationship; Jan seems to be haunted by a tragedy in his past; and the young woman Alicia and the young man Rodney seem to be dealing with respective self-worth and relationship issues. And while I’ll leave Ned’s laundry list of misfortunes a surprise for those of you who do decide to see the show, let’s just say it makes the script’s note that he sought out the retreat partially as a means of resisting the temptation to commit homicide almost understandable.
Though trying to keep track of a story without much actual dialogue seemed like a challenging enough proposition that I decided to read said script beforehand, I think I would have been able to ascertain the outlines of its arc even if I were less familiar with their specifics, which is of course impressive in its own right.
To make up for the play’s lack of verbal content, Wohl also included unusually detailed stage directions and character descriptions in the aforementioned script. Thus, I also found myself impressed by how remarkably the actors appearing onstage resembled the figures as described on-page in almost all meaningful respects, which is probably a credit to director Emma Sue Harris as well as to the performers.
This was perhaps most true of all of Jeff Morgan as Jan, who appeared to perfectly embody Wohl’s description of the character as having “a wide-eyed continually curious air about him, like a little sprite.” Lara Barauna had an innately compelling stage presence as the vain yet vulnerable Alicia, and J. B. Peters as Joan and Aura Brittany Cleveland as Judy were able to convey the necessary chemistry between their characters despite their growing tension.
Patrick Price was also quite believable and sympathetic as the much beleaguered Ned. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Danny Distasio as Rodney projected the appropriate faux-enlightened energy as likely the least likable character, a narcissistic yogi whose spiritual code apparently doesn’t forbid some deceptive dealings. Even the clothing and accessories chosen conveyed quite a lot about each character’s self-conception and social persona, from Judy’s polished wardrobe to Jan’s carefree mountain man-esque attire to Rodney’s eclectic collection of accessories that on closer glance seem effortfully chosen to support a facade.
The seventh character in the play, who only “appears” over recorded voiceover, is also played by Morgan, who creates a completely distinct vocal persona for this second role. That role would be that of the group’s mysterious and oddly aggressive spiritual “Teacher,” who attempts to guide the retreat participants with vague advice that seems by turns resonant and impenetrable.
For instance, his introductory anecdote, about the pilgrimage of a frog, ends:
“What I am suggesting is that when you see the ocean… You may not be able to return to the well.”
From there, his interludes of “teaching” seem to get even more bizarre as he describes dealing with his own existentially painful issues, which provides one of the play’s many occasions for humor as his serious attitude is juxtaposed with increasingly inane remarks.
In between these “lessons,” we are treated to scenes of the retreaters attempting to navigate the silence around camp, which results in some amusing slapstick-style pantomime “conversations,” as well as some softer, more touching moments in which silence seems to speak louder than words ever could.
Harris also makes the most of the Stonzek’s small space by utilizing the audience entrance as an entrance and exit for the cast as well, both as a bookend to the play and when characters venture to the site’s lake, where their jumping into the water is also represented with a distinctive splashing sound.
Though the lake is also the only space the Teacher designates as “clothing optional,” this is one of the many rules we see participants break over the course of the proceedings as the result of an impromptu flirtation. Then, there are Twizzlers guzzled outside designated dining areas, cell phones checked beyond parking lot allowances, and, of course, emotions that erupt strongly enough to break through the veil of compulsive quietude. In any case, the motley crew engages in a wide enough variety of activities that the show remains visually stimulating throughout—and I’m not just talking about the brief moment of full-bore male nudity!
The characters also can be seen beginning to develop relationships with one another over the course of the story and seem maybe even to have learned something by play’s end, though the clearest and thus most affecting arc probably belongs to Judy and Joan. For the others, the changes seem to be subtler ones, less on the level of “enlightenment” than the kinds of everyday transformations I’d guess more of us can relate to than the over-the-top epiphanies presented in more conventional dramas.
Small Mouth Sounds is thus also of the breed of play that might leave audiences wondering what, if anything, should be their takeaway-from-it-all; but as opposed to works in which this aspect felt like a flaw, it here seems more like a deliberate reflection of all that the characters will be left yearning for after the final beat. Though the promise of “spirituality” is largely implied to be a hollow one, there are still whatever small mercies can be glimpsed in small moments and small mouth sounds, and in whatever glimmers of fleeting connection happen to arise on the way.
Without many dense thickets of dialogue to interpret, Small Mouth Sounds is also a relatively undemanding watch despite the dark themes alluded to. And, at only 90 minutes, it by no means overstays its welcome long enough for its distinctive premise to start getting old. In fact, while most of us probably don’t have the fortitude to handle a full five days of silence, most of us would probably do well to take a break from the constant streams of high-volume content coming at us to surrender to this slower, simpler tale. If you’re curious enough to catch it, you’ve only got until this November 27th!