Silence Speaks Volumes in ‘Small Mouth Sounds’

A voice came over the speaker in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s Roberts Studio Theatre to ask everyone to silence their cellphones, standard procedure for any performance. This time, though, the voice said that any phone ringing would be especially disruptive since this show has very little sound.  

The audience members shifted in their seats as the first scene began—every noise they made seemingly amplified by the silence. Coughs that would normally be concealed by the noise of the show had nowhere to hide.

The stillness of the air continued as the first performers took the stage, quietly placing their bags down, taking off their shoes, and taking a seat on an elevated stage with folding chairs and yoga mats underneath.

Small Mouth Sounds, written by Harvard alum Bess Wohl, follows six people through their week at a spiritual retreat held in a forest. Guided by a guru who we can hear but cannot see, the six people gather to hear the two important rules of their trip: Always be on time for group meetings and no speaking.

Some of the six turn toward each other in disbelief, clearly unaware of this rule before they arrived. Silence has been by recommended psychologists for reflection, self awareness, and relaxation. But it seems that the world is only getting louder.

People walk around with headphones, listening to a podcast or an album they’ve heard a thousand times. Some gas stations have TVs at the pump, just in case you get bored while you’re refueling your car. Restaurants play music so loudly you can barely hear the person sitting next to you.

When’s the last time you sat in silence?

Wouldn’t be a bad question to ask the group of six, given that as soon as they are told to look into their folders for their bed assignments for the night, they start to struggle.

They’re forced to get to know their roommate without talking and it soon becomes clear that you can get to know someone pretty well before he even opens his mouth.

This scene, one of the first that had some audience members howling with laughter, introduces the personalities of the characters.

Judy (Celeste Oliva)—a workaholic who opens her laptop as soon as she’s out of the guru’s sight—is in a room with her partner, Joan (Kerry A. Dowling). Joan is all for following the rules of the trip, excited to read a book and disconnect from the world they came from.

Jan (Barlow Adamson) is a harmless but clueless man who can’t understand why his roommate Alicia (Gigi Watson) isn’t too thrilled about how close together he’s placed their sleeping mats. Ned (Nael Nacer) can’t get far away enough from Rodney (Sam Simahk), who does yoga in the room with little regard to his roommate’s personal space.

Through hand motions and stolen glances, the six manage to understand each other, at least to some degree. Judy takes her pills religiously and Jan kisses a framed photograph of a child, the only ways the actors are able to allude to the weight of their life-threatening illnesses and loss of a loved one.

Small Mouth Sounds succeeds in its ability to convey not only the heavy parts of the group’s retreat, but the hilarity of it as well. One moment the audience is holding its breath, watching an intimate moment between strangers. The next, everyone is doubled over with laughter at the facial expressions of Ned, the almost painfully cheery disposition of Joan, or Alicia who cannot help but make noise, even when she doesn’t talk.

The invisible guru (Marianna Bassham, director of SpeakEasy’s Every Brilliant Thing last season), adds to the peculiarity of the trip. She fronts about being a spiritual advisor while breaking her own rules in front of the participants—a cell phone rings, breaking the strict no technology rule, sparking a brief monologue of the guru’s own personal crises.

Bassham alters her voice to a sort of ragged desperate tone—not what you might expect of someone who is supposed to lead people into a state of peace.

The guru isn’t a great guide in the traditional sense, or in the nontraditional sense for that matter. Her greatest strength in the show, however, is that she is perfectly human herself. She falls into the same traps as her patrons, expressing the same insecurities that they have. The beauty in everything, she says, is that no matter who you are or how you feel, you are not alone.  

Six people, all but two of which are strangers to each other, find compassion, humor, and strength within each other when they were struggling to find it within themselves.

Small Mouth Sounds finds its strength when it’s able to show that words, which are meant to bring us together, are sometimes what keep us apart.

Featured Image Courtesy of Nile Scott Studios

January 17, 2019

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