“Small Mouth Sounds”: Things left unsaid

Bess Wohl's play about folks seeking transformation at a silent retreat draws you in but leaves a vague impression.

Quiet has always been a refuge for making sense of our lives. Whether with a short walk, a weekend in the woods, or a meditation practice, it’s sometimes easiest to find ourselves through purposeful stillness. But for some people that’s not enough. They need a lot more quiet; a week’s worth. And those are the people you’ll meet in Artists Rep’s production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which leans into the silence — though perhaps a bit too much.

Set at a nameless silent retreat, Small Mouth Sounds follows six participants as they attempt to find personal enlightenment, guided only by the ostentatious voice of an unseen guru and their own exasperated gesturing to each other. There’s not much in the way of an introduction to these characters, a few ticks and some simple costuming get across the shorthand of it: There’s a lesbian odd-couple, a swaggering yoga teacher, an anxious underdog, a religious older gentleman, and the standard stereotypical millennial white woman.

A peaceful, not-so-easy feeling: Susannah Mars (from left), Ayanna Berkshire, John San Nicolas, Michael Mendelson, Kelly Godell and Darius Pierce retreat into silence in “Small Mouth Sounds” at Artists Rep. Photo: David Kinder

The retreat environment imposes an intriguing restriction on the show: While there are moments of dialogue, much of Small Mouth Sounds does actually take place in silence. We tend to think of theater as a visual medium, but it’s easy to forget how much heavy lifting dialogue does until its stripped back. As an audience member, this is a show you have to lean into, literally, to make sure you don’t miss any subtle change in countenance or a lingering finger. And a lot happens in these silent moments. It’s a nice reminder of how meaningful touch is between humans and how much vulnerability it takes.

The constrictions of the show’s conceit also turn the characters into puzzles to be solved; every gesture and expression of the actors is a clue to who they are, bringing them more and more depth. Ayanna Berkshire and Susannah Mars are excellent as the strained couple Joan and Judy. It becomes clear that even before the pair arrived at the retreat there has been something heavy and unspoken between them, and watching the two actors struggle with that weight in silence is fascinating. Berkshire makes Judy cling to the silence, drawing strength from it, using it as a shield but also a weapon. While Mars’ Joan fumbles with it, exposed and awkward.

The overwhelming silence also makes the scant dialogue land harder. Darius Pierce plays Ned the anxious underdog. Pierce is a strong comedic actor, evoking laughs and sympathy with his exasperated expressions and timid body language. But when Ned finally gets the chance to speak his mind he delivers an incredibly powerful monologue that — while still laced with the nervous energy he’s shown throughout — reveals a surprising and rich backstory. The entirety of the production shifts in that raw and vulnerable moment.

At times, however, the show is frustratingly vague. While the relationships between all the characters onstage feel genuine, half of the characters (the millennial woman, yoga teacher, and old man) never grow past the archetypes established in the first few minutes. Even after learning important facts about them, we still have too little to latch on to.

The show hinges on each character’s moments of transformation but really only Judy and Ned’s seem to carry any weight. It’s not that we don’t believe the rest of the characters — the moments are clearly defined and the actors do a great job selling them as authentic. It’s that we don’t see what they mean, or they just seem to mean the character felt bad before and now they feel better. The revelations are too personal to the characters.

Wohl ends the play on the most inscrutable character, the older gentleman played by Michael Mendelson, and gives him the biggest moment. We understand the sadness he carries around but nothing else. We don’t know how much he struggles. Or even how much he understands of what the guru tells them. And yet it’s clear his moment of revelation is supposed to be the most important by tying it back to the beginning of the play. Mendelson sells the moment, he lets his character’s grief wash over the audience, but once it is over there’s nothing left to take away. Too much was left unsaid.

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