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Silence turns out to indeed be golden in Bess Wohl’s charming, inventive Small Mouth Sounds, having its world premiere at Ars Nova. The hundred-minute play takes place at a silent meditation retreat, where six people have come seeking enlightenment, or at least a respite from the pain life has brought them. Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) is a doe-eyed middle-aged man with a soft, kind heart, carrying around with him a picture of a child. Rodney (Babak Tafti) is a yoga practitioner and meditator who knows all the right moves and poses. Alicia (Jessica Almasy) is a chaotic, emotional young woman, perpetually late and overly dramatic. Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a troubled, hapless soul who has experienced more than his fair share of suffering. And Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) are a couple dealing with illness as their love is tested. The six people have come to an unnamed location — the show was inspired by a silent spiritual retreat Wohl attended at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck — for five days of vegan eating, inward searching, and no talking, led by a teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) who turns out to have some problems of his own. “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself,” the unseen teacher says in a slow, choppy disembodied voice heard through a speaker. “It is the best kind. Of vacation. Because after this. You don’t ever have to go back. To who you were.” Over the course of the five days, they all find out a little more about who they are, and they don’t always like what they see.
Set designer Laura Jellinek (The Nether) has transformed Ars Nova into a long, narrow space, with two rows of seats on either side of the stage. At one end are six chairs for the characters, who sit there when listening to the teacher, whose voice comes from the opposite end, echoing through the room. The center, horizontal area serves primarily as the retreaters’ sleeping quarters, with Ned paired with Rodney, Joan with Judy, and Alicia mistakenly situated with Jan, which doesn’t make her happy, although he is serenely unperturbed by it. Director Rachel Chavkin, who delighted audiences with the smash hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which played at Ars Nova in 2012, keeps things much simpler this time around, showing that action speaks louder than words, incorporating silent-movie tropes and clever, recognizable gestures to reveal the characters’ traits, from their failings to their hopes and dreams, from needing a pencil to fighting off bears and mosquitoes. Video projections of nature by Andrew Schneider surround the upper panels of the room, placing everyone in the great outdoors, enhanced by Stowe Nelson’s terrific sound design, from the pitter-patter of rain to the teacher’s not-quite-godlike voice. Lighting designer Mike Inwood rarely lets it get too dark, so the audience is well aware of themselves, almost as if they are also on the retreat and observing such rules as silence and no eating, since any whisper or unwrapping of candy would be seen and heard by everyone. There might not be a lot of dialogue — although there is some, as numerous rules are broken by the students and the teacher — but Wohl (Pretty Filthy) has plenty to say about impermanence, communication, connection, intention, and interdependence as relationships unfold at a calm, dare we say meditative, pace. The title refers to those guttural sounds — grunts, moans, sighs, chuckles — we all make when words won’t suffice, or aren’t allowed. In Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl, Chavkin, and the splendid cast prove that silence can speak volumes.