Spirituality in Silent Retreat

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday November 1, 2017
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The sounds of silence can actually get pretty loud. Not many words are spoken at all in Bess Wohl's "Small Mouth Sounds," a play in which silence actually amps up the mostly mute palaver among six attendees of a spiritual retreat. Now at ACT's Strand Theater, Wohl's play ranges from slapstick to heartbreak as the characters, each with a very different reason for being there, try to connect while remaining in silent obedience of the rules laid out by an unseen guru.

This small gem of a play, first seen in New York in 2015, has spawned a six-city tour with an SF stop that is part of ACT's current season. Original director Rachel Chavkin may be working with a new cast, but it's hard to imagine six actors more in tune with the people they are playing. Over the course of 100 minutes, they communicate the characters' essences as they try to navigate through the unfamiliar world of the retreat while, usually without much success, leaving personal baggage behind at this sylvan retreat in Chavkin's smartly materialized production.

We get a quick fix on the characters as they take their seats for an orientation led by the retreat's spiritual leader. They are variously befuddled, cranky, frazzled, insecure, and in one case, annoyingly serene, and there is a play-to-type element to Wohl's script. When they are paired up for cabin accommodations, it adds some one-on-one friction, and we drop in on them as individuals, and as cabinmates.

We have a shaggy, self-conscious nerd (Connor Barrett), a smug and impossibly toned yoga instructor (Edward Chin-Lyn), an insecure modern-day Job (Ben Beckley), an obliviously entitled millennial (Brenna Palughi), and a stressed-out lesbian couple (Cherene Snow and Socorro Santiago). All are excellent, but the wonderfully quizzical reactions of Snow's character became my personal touchstone as this effort at consciousness-raising is rolled out.

For the most part, Wohl offers up slices of observational humor as individual stories find points of connection during the characters' weekend together while the soothing, disembodied voice of the teacher (a spot-on Orville Mendoza) offers up parables, platitudes, prickly admonitions, and just maybe some useful wisdom. But there's no answer when, in a Q&A with the teacher, one character wonders if it isn't just plain wrong to be seeking inner peace when the world is in such a state of misery.

It's impossible to say if a life improved is in the offing for any of the participants, and we see little sign of that as they make their awkward goodbyes. But whatever the fate of the characters, their predicaments are voyeuristically enjoyable to watch in a hand-signal environment. There's probably some schadenfreude at work, but it's easy to find bits of yourself scattered among the characters who are all just seeking a little bit more. In "Small Mouth Sounds," you get to know them in an intimate, expressive, humorous, and mostly wordless way.

"Small Mouth Sounds" will run at the Strand Theater through Dec. 10. Tickets are $14-$90. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org