Theatreworks tackles a silent retreat with mixed results

Theatreworks’ production of Bess Wohl’s 2015 drama Small Mouth Sounds swims into deep and thoughtful waters as six troubled souls seek answers during a four-day silent meditative yoga retreat. Yep, it’s a staged play meant to share an impactful message with few words.

As the title and premise suggest, it’s an unusual play that was, for me, tough to get a handle on. Small Mouth Sounds will not bedazzle like a musical or inspire a lot laughter like a comedy. Patrons won’t even witness yoga or enjoy (endure?) yogic banter. The material is nontraditional, unexpected; the play is more engaging than it is entertaining.

As the play opens, “Day One” is illuminated above the stage as the six attendees begin to arrive at the retreat’s rustic, woodsy setting. The minimalistic set employs tiny chairs under subdued lighting. First to appear is Jan, who seems hesitant but receptive. Played with thoughtful restraint by Theatreworks newcomer Lavour Addison, Jan is pensive, watching and waiting with curiosity.

They are all strangers, but for one couple in the mix, Joan (Christina Norris) and Judy (Prentiss Benjamin). The duo relates to one another with ease as they silently present the only semi-complete backstory among the retreat’s attendees. Through props and gestures, they are in pain, struggling, seeking the connection they once shared now darkened by a shared tragedy.

A few laughs

Yes, there is humor in Small Mouth Sounds. Ned (Jihad Milhem) presents some comic moments humming in his yoga pants while sitting in lotus pose. He is distant and seemingly oblivious to the others, his personal story shrouded in mystery. His focus strikes a stark contrast to that of his fellow students who seem distracted and clueless about yoga or what’s ahead.

There is more humor to be had in the play’s off-stage lines: the teacher (Josue Ivan Miranda) bellowing passive/aggressive directives to his students as they stare in bewilderment like a herd of deer in headlights. Miranda chides the yogis for arriving late, whispering or fidgeting. A welcome and amusing interlude comes when the Guru is interrupted by his own cellphone, unable to swiftly stifle the unwelcome technology as he stammers to center himself and his students.

The action shifts between day and night, with retreat attendees eager for Day Four’s projection (as is the audience.) Lights dimmed, the tiny chairs are replaced with yoga mats as the actors settle into imaginary rest with quirky light switches that shift the action seamlessly from pod to pod.

There are whispered voices, succumbing to the human need to connect, those small mouth sounds that require careful listening to grasp what nuggets of backstory there are. While there is plenty of potential for levity, the production stays true to its script: imagination and interpretation supplant the expected theatrical delivery found in most plays.

By Day Three, the yogis are afforded some time off. A swimming hole is created where the sounds of water and splashing bathe both actors and audience in welcome refreshment. There are hushed voices and contraband. Like rebellious teens, some indulge with reckless abandon.

Julia Greene plays millennial Alicia, a tall, lanky train wreck who leaves the retreat seemingly as troubled as she arrives. Russell Sperberg makes his Theatreworks debut as Rodney, the consummate anti-yogi. Under the cloak of darkness, he and Alicia briefly break their vows of silence. His scars are revealed: the ones under his woolen cap from a recent accident, but also the emotional toll of a year that included job loss, death and divorce.

Silence proves tougher than anticipated as the six attendees must turn off the noise and tune inward to find their peace. A play with so few words is akin to a person without hearing; other senses must step in to compensate. Director Tasia A. Jones and the Small Mouth Sounds cast and crew meet the challenge of difficult and skill-building material, but the audience too must invest in hopes that engagement will spark enlightenment.

The result is, at best, a mixed bag of potentially engaging material that’s well wrought by Theatreworks but, as an entertainment, not particularly fulfilling. It’s tempting to question the choice of doing this play at all, although it was an off-Broadway hit (and the Arvada Center also has it teed up for this spring). As a study in character, realized with minimal dialogue, it’s an intriguing bit of theatre and no doubt a nice challenge for the actors. Audiences, however, may be left scratching their heads a bit as they contemplate just what it all meant.