Review: 'Small Mouth Sounds' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

OnStage Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic

We often talk about the importance of action; it is peppered throughout our daily speech: Don’t just talk the talk. Walk the walk; Actions speak louder than words; A picture is worth a thousand words. Emphasis on the doing is brought home in Bess Wohl’s 2015 work, “Small Mouth Sounds,” which premiered at Ars Nova the same year. Ars Nova is best known for its brilliantly astonishing musical, “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” which was directed by Rachel Chavkin, who also directs this recent offer from Ars Nova.

The story takes place at a retreat center somewhere in the woods, and our focus is on six of the participants: Jan (Connor Barrett), Ned (Ben Beckley), Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), Alicia (Brenna Palughi), Joan (Socorro Santiago), and Judy (Cherene Snow). The theme of the retreat is “In Silence” and the participants are not to speak at all during the duration of the week-long workshop. And not with irony, the person who speaks the most is their instructor (Orville Mendoza), who we never see, telling stories about frogs and oceans, and tossing out banal phrases meant to enlighten and engage. After putting their personal intentions for the week in writing, it is obvious that these folks have come to the Backwoods of Nowhere in search of something: themselves, perhaps, an answer to their deep-seeded need, or maybe just some inner peace.

Even though the entirety of the dialogue in this play could fit on probably five pages, you could surmise each person’s story, despite knowing only half of the character’s names (unless you checked the program beforehand, which I didn’t). It must be a difficult journey finding one’s self when no one utters your name for an entire play. But luckily, it didn’t matter because I found these people’s stories engaging without the need for additional utterances.

Mr. Beckley’s character, Ned – or as I called him in my head, Neurotic Beanie Man – was easily my favorite performer, mostly because he conveys his anxiety and frustrations so well without saying anything. It’s when he finally does speak that is most devastating. I also enjoyed Ms. Snow’s portrayal of Judy; her facial expressions certainly betrayed her true feelings without having to utter a sound, especially when having to interact with her partner, Joan. It was interesting to watch a couple – who have probably been in a relationship for decades – being forced to communicate without words.

Mr. Chin-Lyn’s portrayal as the seemingly-enlightened yoga instructor, Rodney, plays the perfect man-who’s-got-it-together until one action throws his whole persona off-balance. Ms. Palughi brings a natural inherent sadness to her character, which made us sympathize with her from the beginning, despite her breaking every rule at the retreat center as soon as she walked onto the stage (which was also funny). And Mr. Barrett’s wordless portrayal of Jan is skilled and touching, and the reason for his silence remains a mystery to be revealed.

A simple, clean set design is offered by Laura Jellinek, which fits in nicely with the play’s location. Stowe Nelson’s impactful sound design elements manifested themselves physically at times; the rain and thunder rumbled under our feet.  The use of projections was effective, and were subtly humorous at times.

However, for a play focusing on being seen and not heard, I was extremely frustrated by some of the staging. Many of the critical scenes – when the participants were in their cabins after hours – are performed on the low level thrust, which is nearly on the same level as the front row of the audience, making it difficult to see for those further up and further back.  During these moments, I spent most of my time bobbing and weaving the heads in front of me, and in doing so, I missed important parts of the show. To me, the staging choice seemed amateurish, surprising coming from two companies with such high production values. Sadly, missing those scenes meant that I didn’t enjoy the show as much as I could have. It’s a shame: a play with few words gets obstructed by its own staging. I guess the director wasn’t able to walk the walk.