Jared (Sam Appleman), Joyce (Clare Blackmer), Frank (Kerry Callery) and Phyllis (Karen Carpenter) share a moment in "Body Awareness," onstage now at the Trinity's Southside Cultural Center.
Annie Baker’s play provides a succinct snapshot of one week in the lives of four characters who are forced to come to terms with the reality of their lives. One of the wonders of this production is how the inner lives of the characters are so deeply and honestly registered by the actors and communicated, often wordlessly, to the audience, thanks in large part to Wendy Overly’s deft and delicate direction.
The play takes place in the college town of Shirley, Vermont where a weeklong symposium on eating disorders has been renamed “Body Awareness Week.” Phyllis is a professor at the State College, and her girlfriend Joyce is a high-school teacher whose son Jared is displaying symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome. Into this mix comes Frank, a photographer visiting for the symposium whose pictures of female nudes cause Phyllis considerable consternation. This could be an occasion for satire, the follies and foibles of non-traditional families living in crunchy granola academic arcadia, and it is to Baker’s credit that the lives we witness here are taken both at face value and absolutely seriously.
The aims of “Body Awareness” are lofty, addressing nothing less than the nature of communication itself and how the terms, definitions and ‘mental labels’ that we affix to how we perceive the world around us not only objectifies others but constricts our own thoughts and hampers our thinking. Our inability to communicate honestly is the subtle subtext of the show. Basic thought and language barriers aren’t exclusive to the troubled Jared. Phyllis is tied to a feminist dogma, wound up tightly in her personal worldview even as she begins to unravel. Photographer Frank, too, is at the center of his own personal and self-satisfied universe. Joyce, the social studies teacher, initially seems wholly capable of simply listening. All are on a journey to discover that that this seemingly passive activity is the source of all wisdom.
At the center of this emotional and philosophical storm is Joyce, played by Clare Blackmer. She’s a marvel in the role and wonderfully natural. Her concern for her son is all too real and as she seemingly bends over backwards in her attempts to be concerned without being judgmental, the emotional burden she bears shows its weight on her face.
The onstage chemistry that she and Karen Carpenter, as Phyllis, have forged rings true, too. Their shared dynamic is complex, multilayered and fun. Ms. Carpenter is strident and forthright as Phyllis, and though swift towards both judgment and self-congratulation, her performance is sincere.
Kerry Callery is absolutely hilarious as Frank the photographer, all the more so as he never seems to be attempting to be funny. He wins our hearts, if not our minds, because he totally believes in the goofy philosophy that he espouses, to the point that there seems a real wisdom inherent in his illogic. Though thoroughly pleased with himself at all times, he never seems arrogant even in the midst of grandstanding at the home where he is a guest. His is a wonderfully rollicking portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, happily embracing the universe with an utter and loopy certainty.
As Jared, Samuel Appleman seems so beset by personal demons that his presence is heartbreakingly compelling. Yet even as he seems impaired by his condition he is always very much engaged, sometimes in a scarily adversarial manner, with his attempts to break through his own mental and emotional barriers that commanding our attention.
Director Wendy Overly has orchestrated many moments where the sheer array of emotional notes being wordlessly played feel like a complex passage from a symphony. The authenticity she has created onstage is always palpable, from the relentless undercurrent of tension between these characters to the give-and-take of honest, subtle and real responses onstage. Her production pulls no punches but is never overdone, delivering all with precision.
At only 31, Annie Baker has become something of a phenomenon in the American theatre scene and her plays are among the most highly produced in the country. Her work has been described as trying “to explore what’s left unsaid along the edges of conversation”. In a recent interview, Baker said “I feel like we lack any terms for playwriting that come after 1890.” Appropriate for the writer of this play that eschews labels, she cannot be easily classified as either “realist” or “absurdist”. As Joyce sagely notes in “Body Awareness”, “concepts aren’t people.” Indeed. What Annie Baker does best is to deliver askance portraits of people; she is an intricate architect of her character’s fragile inner structures. “Body Awareness” quietly insists upon making that distinct difference between conceptual objects and actual people in our thinking and does so with great good humor. This show subtly suggests that we remove the “self” from our “consciousness” and to leave our conceptual comfort zone in order to achieve the freedom of emotional and intellectual autonomy. The play reminds us to be aware that our mind is connected to our body and, most importantly of all, extols us to simply listen.
The Wilbury Group presents “Body Awareness” now through April 6 at the Trinity Theater’s Southside Cultural Center, 393 Broad Street Providence. For more information or to purchase tickets ($15/$20) call 401/400-7100 or visit www.thewilburygroup.org.