If you’re a person who sits on the train or in a restaurant, observing the behavior of those around you and imagining their stories, then “Small Mouth Sounds” is the play for you.
Playwright Bess Wohl sets her insightful comedy/drama at a silent retreat. There are six characters (as well as a seventh, whom we only hear), but they are presented the way strangers are “presented” in a public setting: We know nothing about them but, gradually, bits of information are revealed. We discover what a couple of them do for a living. We learn why a few came to this retreat, which seems to be aimed at trying to heal from tragedy.
But much of what we find in “Small Mouth Sounds” depends on how we interpret the characters’ physical reactions and interactions. Who embraces the instructions of the unseen teacher (a rather Eckhart Tolle-like character wittily voiced by Jay Owen Eisenberg)? Who goes through the motions? Why does one of the students seem slightly more off-kilter than the others? Are any of them truly silent (especially if loud orgasms count)?
Watching “Small Mouth Sounds” feels like discovering a new, vaguely unfamiliar taste or learning a language similar to one you already know. Because the people speak only accidentally or surreptitiously, they do not reveal themselves in the way most theatrical characters do.
Less talented actors might see that as an opportunity to go big, but the Jungle Theater’s sharp cast — also including Christina Baldwin, Michael Curran-Dorsano, Becca Hart, Jim Lichtscheidl, Faye M. Price and Eric Sharp — reveals a lot with a little.
It’s also an unusually democratic play — sometimes three things happen at once on the Jungle’s stage and we get to decide where to look. But director Lauren Keating deftly shifts our focus to make sure we see what needs to be seen (with a huge assist from her creative team, especially sound designer Reid Rejsa, whose crickets and birdsong are crucial).
The result is that, even more than usual, the audience feels like part of the creation of “Small Mouth Sounds.” It’s almost as if we’re characters, too.
Watching two strangers interact for the first time may make you ponder how to present yourself when meeting a new person. Seeing a couple deal, imperfectly, with grief could make you recall a situation when you wish you knew the perfect thing to say.
The play is not an entirely unfamiliar theatrical experience. It makes use of the Chekhovian rule that says if you see a gun at the beginning of a play, it’ll be fired by the end. Except here the “gun” is a bag of SunChips.
But “Small Mouth Sounds” does ask us to approach it with a high degree of curiosity and a sense of adventure. Which is why, I think, it ends with a few moments of still, silent darkness that give us time to sit with ourselves, think about what we’ve seen and prepare to head back out into the noisy world.