Shrug your shoulder and you communicate that you don’t care. Roll your eyes, and you’re suggesting you don’t buy into something. Body language and gestures often speak volumes. More often words are totally inadequate, especially when it comes to describing depths of personal suffering. This comes through loud and clear in Bess Wohl’s play “Small Mouth Sounds” at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, directed with equal amounts of empathy and precision by Rachel Chavkin. Here only a snore, sob, and unguarded spoken word breaks the silence of six attendees at a nature retreat. There’s one other voice that occasionally breaks through the silence and that is of the retreat’s facilitator. Embarking on this woodland retreat, far from the noise of everyday life, six people hope to find their way out of suffering and into inner peace.
The leader/teacher lays out the rules: No smoking, no eating in the rooms, and no talking. He also encourages them to feel completely free. Taking him up on this offer, Rodney, played convincingly as a free yoga spirit by Edward Chin-Lyn, sheds all of his clothing revealing a thoroughly confident and naked male. Through gestures and stares, it’s easy to see that while the women in the group find the strutting nude amusing, Rodney’s roommate Ned does not take kindly to it. Ned wants to be the sole comforting agent to the distraught and beautiful Alicia; he doesn’t want to compete with Rodney. Ben Beckley plays the troubled Ned with a strong undercurrent of unadulterated neediness.
Even though the actors do not speak, it doesn’t take long to figure out that Alicia has been dumped and is heartbroken. Brenna Palughi playing the part, communicates this perfectly with silent but tearful and emotional fits. Connor Barrett plays Jan, a strong he-man type with a terrible loss of his own. Cherene Snow plays a very ill Judy, while Socorro Santiago plays Judy’s friend Joan. The deep and resonating voice of the unseen retreat’s facilitator is that of Orville Mendoza.
This play shows how much meaning and emotion can be shared without speaking a single word. The characters attend the retreat to turn their lives around. They desperately want to shake off their suffering and find inner peace. In this crazy world, many seek inner peace because it’s so hard to find with the constant bombardment of words via cell phones, tweets, and blogs. Words are not only inadequate when it comes to describing pain and trouble, whether physical or mental, but often they are unnecessary. What the playwright succeeds in doing so well is showing how important it is to recognize body language. It plays just as important a role in communication as words do. There are times when the play does get a bit tedious, but overall, it is far more than a gimmick.
Laura Jellinek’s set design is simple but most effective. Andrew Schneider’s video design adds significantly to the atmosphere of the play. When the wind blows wildly, the characters’ emotions flare up as well. The video component never lets the audience forget the woodland location or the power of nature, which can be healing. Stowe Nelson’s sound design is most effective whether listening to crickets or the boisterous voice of the leader. Tilly Grimes’ costume designs are character appropriate. The play runs through Sept. 24. Box office:203-787-4282.