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A Retreat From the World Speaks Volumes in Small Mouth Sounds

Strangers seek enlightenment in Bess Wohl's play.

The cast of Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds, directed by Shade Murray, at A Red Orchid Theatre.
(© Mike Hari)

Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds, now playing at A Red Orchid Theatre, is a play that manages to say a lot while saying hardly anything at all. Six people gather at a rural retreat hoping to cast off the complicated baggage of day-to-day life and rediscover themselves. They take off their shoes, turn off their phones (mostly), and, at the orders of their Teacher (the offstage voice of Meighan Gerachis), take a vow of silence.

As scenes unfold over the play's seven days, the six try to embrace their ascetic rules, to mixed results. Judy (Cynthia Hines) and her partner Joan (Jennifer Engstrom) find their relationship tested both by the restraints of the retreat and by the clarity it brings. Ned (Levi Holloway) is an insecure, competitive guy who is looking for inner peace following a terrible year. Rodney (Travis A. Knight), a yoga instructor, relishes the chance to show off how selfless and tuned-in he is. Alicia (Heather Chrisler), seemingly nursing a broken heart, sneaks contraband snack food and phone time. And Jan (Lawrence Grimm) simply complies with all of the guru's directives without complaint.

There's no plot to speak of in Wohl's 100-minute play and, keeping with Teacher's rules, the dialogue is minimal. But not a minute is wasted. Every gesture is deliberately crafted by director Shade Murray, from the smallest facial expression to the giddiest slapstick sequences. As the outwardly stoic Judy, Hines shows earnest glimpses of an overwhelmed and vulnerable woman, and her scenes with Engstrom are the most emotionally urgent in Wohl's play. Holloway and Chrisler seem to have great fun playing two people who are not particularly likable, and Knight is perfectly cast as a smugly gorgeous fitness fanatic. Grimm exudes a warm and mysterious presence as Jan, whose character remains a cipher.

While they try to live in the moment, the characters of Small Mouth Sounds reveal themselves to one another — and to the audience. As backstories are slowly referenced and personalities gradually take shape, the slow burn of character development is tantalizing. The sole misstep in Wohl's play is its only moment of explicit exposition, courtesy of a lengthy monologue by sad-sack Ned. His history of misfortune is laid out for the audience, robbing him of the mystery held by the other characters.

The rural landscape of Small Mouth Sounds is brought to life primarily by Jeffrey Levin's atmospheric sound design. From the gentle chirping of birds signaling the dawn, to one pernicious mosquito following Jan wherever he goes, all the sounds of nature are on display. Kurtis Boetcher's wood-plank set design resembles the interior of a cabin, and Heather Gilbert's dappled lighting design evokes a woodland grove.

At the end of the week, the retreat comes to an end. As the attendees go their separate ways, they don't give the impression that their quietude has led to enlightenment. But thanks to Wohl's ingenious writing, and Murray's fearless direction, Small Mouth Sounds proves that silence can speak louder than words.