Small Mouth Sounds is an extraordinary play that is both satirically funny and poignantly sad … all while the actors are largely silent. New York playwright Bess Wohl’s deservedly acclaimed 100-minute play takes place during a five-day silent retreat on the wooded grounds of “the institute.” A droll and witty send-up of the meditation, self-improvement, and eastern mindfulness industries, the six troubled workshop participants are instructed to breathe deeply, meditate, seek inner peace, practice yoga, and create their “intentions,” which they studiously transcribe and carry with them, only to burn them ceremonially at the end of the week.
We are introduced to the group as the first session begins. Since the actors are largely mute, we don’t learn most of their characters’ names, and can only surmise their personalities and problems from their amazing facial expressions and heightened, but not super-exaggerated, body language. Fit, handsome and apparently confident, Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) is a yoga star, superbly in his element. He is recognized by awe-struck Judy (Cherene Snow) and Joan (Socorro Santiago), a middle-aged couple, whose relationship we see is tension-filled, as they blame each other for getting lost. But something much deeper is causing their angst.
Ned (Ben Beckley), appears to be looking forward to the workshop, until Rodney starts strutting his yoga stuff. Ned wears an ethnic hat to cover some head wounds, which are outward manifestations of his more serious tribulations. Jan (Connor Barrett), with piercing eyes, sleeps next to a photograph of a young boy, who we surmise to be his dead son. He is kind to Alicia (Brenna Palughi), who arrives late, frazzled and miserable after a break-up, wearing headphones and carrying a forbidden bag of food.
The group is led by the disassociated, unseen and slightly accented voice of their guru (Orville Mendoza), who professes a self-satisfied ignorance of 21th-century technology, except when he answers his cell phone. Preoccupied with his head cold and his father’s health, he sneezes into his microphone and voices his frustration at his students’ lack of progress. His meaningless, but allegedly instructive, tales are told in a pseudo-solemn voice. The leader’s catchphrases, like, “You have come here to meet yourself,” have just the right degree of inanity.
As the retreat continues, relationships emerge and change. A few of the initiates seem to have found solace, change or enlightenment by the close of the retreat, as they hastily wish each other well.
Titrating the audiences’ emotions between laughter and sorrow are the excellent actors, directed by the talented Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), who keeps the action moving and the audience enchanted. But Bess Wohl’s creative writing is paramount. She has written a play that obliges us to complete the portrait of the six souls who crave a sense of peace, and to wonder and worry about them after we leave the theater. Don’t miss this one.
Small Mouth Sounds can be seen at the renovated ACT Strand Theater at 8th and Market in San Francisco. It’s a comfortable contemporary venue with a nice café in the lobby. Performances run through Dec. 10. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit ACT online. A national tour to Santa Monica, Dallas, Miami and Philadelphia follows.