When the lights went up after Friday night’s performance of Small Mouth Sounds at the Jungle Theater, audience members immediately started comparing notes regarding their own experiences at meditation retreats.
“At mine,” said one woman, “there was a rule that if someone started crying, you were supposed to just leave them be and let them work it out.”
At the retreat center where the characters in Bess Wohl’s 2015 play find themselves, there are many rules, but that’s certainly not one of them. Each of the six characters onstage is working something out, and they’re all up in each other’s business... silently.
The clever premise for Small Mouth Sounds is that none of the people we see are supposed to be saying a word for most of the five-day span depicted onstage. The only character who’s supposed to be talking is an unseen teacher, voiced by Jay Owen Eisenberg in the Jungle’s new production.
Wohl gets a lot of comic mileage from the setup, which lets us watch as six people—who, except for one pre-existing romantic couple (Christina Baldwin and Faye M. Price), have never met before—negotiate the logistics of life at the secluded compound where they’re bunked up for the week. Ostensibly they’re all contemplating their inner selves, but of course their fellow seekers prove much more interesting.
What at first seems a satire turns much more somber as we learn about the characters, who are all grappling with private pain. Eventually, we learn that their struggles are so widely shared, and in at least one case so outrageously extreme, that we’re actually watching an existential allegory—a sort of No Exit summer camp.
While the script’s attempt at profundity fizzles, the unusual scenario is so well realized that this frequently funny show is easy to recommend. Lauren Keating, the director who recently revitalized the Guthrie’s Christmas Carol, landed a dream cast who delight in the silent comedy and do their damnedest to pull off the pathos.
Jim Lichtscheidl, an actor with supreme facility for comic expressiveness, portrays an unassuming and slightly confused man who cherishes a photo we never get to see. His nonplussed bunkmate is a young woman played by the priceless Becca Hart, whose utter lack of chill contrasts with the serene yoga pro (Eric Sharp) she gets a crush on. Michael Curran-Dorsano rounds out the cast as a lonely, amiable dude who’s had every bad break in the book.
In Mina Kinukawa’s appropriately clean set design, the Jungle stage’s turntable gets a workout as the characters move between classroom and sleeping quarters. The busier the show gets, the more successful it is; the quieter, stiller interludes tend to drag since there’s a sameness to the sorrow.
Wohl’s message is heartfelt—suffering souls can find solace in community—but her interest in the shared human experience ends up being largely a drag on a play that works best when it’s celebrating our affecting individuality.
Small Mouth Sounds
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through June 16; 612-822-7063