Amber McMahon and Sharon Millerchip are leading something of a double life right now. At night, they are performing at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre in The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, a delightful new comedy by Melanie Tait, in which both of their characters have plenty to say. During the day, they are rehearsing Small Mouth Sounds for the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, in which they are silent for most of the play.

Small Mouth SoundsSharon Millerchip and Amber McMahon. Photograph © Robert Catto

“They’re such different worlds, but I think it’s a saving grace that [Small Mouth Sounds] is not text driven, it’s more like a landscape for us to be in and respond to. If we were doing a heavy text piece, and doubling with another play, I think it would be so mentally exhausting, but with these two you are kind of working in a different way,” says McMahon.

Small Mouth Sounds is a comedy about six people from the city who embark on a weeklong silent retreat in a rural location. They all have internal demons they want to address, but the vow of silence collides with their need for human connection. The play asks how we can address life’s problems when words fail us.

Written by American playwright Bess Wohl, Small Mouth Sounds premiered in 2015 and was a 2016 Critics Pick of The New York Times, New York Magazine and Time Out New York. The American reviewers were fulsome in their praise. The Huffington Post described it as “a play unlike any other”, while The New Yorker called it “a theatrical experience you will never forget”.

“Wohl isn’t afraid to let the ridiculous rub up against the sublime, and it makes Small Mouth Sounds as entertaining as it is transcendent,” said Time Out.

The New York Times described it as an “enchanting” play and said: “You may not emerge wanting to spend a week with your mouth shut, but Ms Wohl’s play makes a wonderful case for how eloquently silence can speak.”

Small Mouth SoundsAmber McMahon in rehearsals for Small Mouth Sounds with director Jo Turner. Photograph © Robert Catto

The production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company is directed by Jo Turner. McMahon plays Alicia, a miserable, hyperactive, frazzled young woman who is reeling from a relationship breakup. Millerchip plays Joan, who arrives with her partner Judy. Tensions are showing in their longstanding relationship and Joan sporadically flares with anger, for reasons we will discover.

The other characters are Rodney, a handsome, smug show-off with a yoga-toned body, the lonely, eager, perennially unlucky Ned, and a mild-mannered young man called Jan.

We hear the voice of the unseen guru, who runs the retreat, talking to them all, but the six characters say very little, given their vow of silence. Thus, the script is mostly written in the form of stage directions.

“We were working on a scene this morning and it was great that Jo could just call out what happens, because it’s odd to learn action. We’re used to learning lines, I guess, but this is like event-driven scenarios, where you just kind of have to build the thoughts around that,” says McMahon.

“Instead of learning lines which then dictate the ebb and flow of the scene, it’s really just checkpoints of action,” agrees Millerchip. “And sometimes they’re quite ambiguous. It’ll say, ‘Joan lets out a great sigh’, and even though that’s quite explicit, you can interpret [the sigh] any way you like. I think we thought, ‘oh, this’ll be easy but in fact…’”

“Yeah, easy! But it’s actually quite complex and surprisingly taxing because every part of your fibre is being invested into conveying a story without words,” says McMahon.

Small Mouth SoundsSharon Millerchip and Amber McMahon. Photograph © Robert Catto

That said, the narrative is still tightly scripted. “I actually thought [the stage directions] would be more provocations rather than scenes, but when we went into rehearsal they’re fully fleshed out scenes so you can’t improvise around with that,” says McMahon.

Wohl’s script does include a detailed description of each character for the actors, with background information about them, most of which is never revealed to the audience. However, Millerchip says that this information is invaluable in helping them get to grips with the person they are portraying. “I feel like I have a handle on who Joan is and why she does the thing that she does and so it helps inform the choices I’ll make. So, that was the purpose of it; it was really a tool for us to give depth to our interpretations.”

There are scenes where the voice of the guru is heard talking to them all in a group. “When we’re present at these talks by the omnipresent voice, it’s about our own personal journey and our response to him, so they’re great scenes because we’re kind of trying to minutely respond to each other, but it’s about our own personal journey,” says McMahon.

“It’s interesting for the audience to see that everybody’s receiving the same information, but given our personality traits and the baggage that we’ve arrived with, how differently we interpret the same materials. It’s all the intricacies, all the things we don’t normally notice about each other are amplified somehow,” says Millerchip. “Jo gets us to do these physical, playful, group perception warm-up games at the beginning of the day’s rehearsal, which gets us in the zone, and they’re terrific.”

“You’re reading the energy of the room and picking up on non-verbal signs. It sounds a bit spooky but it’s really fun,” adds McMahon.

Small Mouth SoundsSharon Millerchip in rehearsals for Small Mouth Sounds. Photograph © Robert Catto

Millerchip says that they have been navigating how to pitch the performance style. “Obviously we want it to be very naturalistic and truthful, but heightened enough that the audience will be able to read it and it’ll be interesting to them. There will be certain moments that draw the audience’s eyes so there is a real structure to it. We have to find ways where our movements can be slightly amplified, and then we’ll move back into something more subliminal while somebody else is taking the floor, and that’s Jo’s skill. He’s so clever, he’s got such a beautiful instinct for that physicality and the language of it. He’s a beautiful story teller in those regards, so we feel in pretty safe hands.”

There are, in fact, some moments when the characters speak. Joan and Judy enter having an argument. Joan has a monologue and Alicia has a phone call. “We all have a moment except for Jan really,” says Millerchip.

“Yes, poor old Jan,” says McMahon as the two of them burst out laughing. “We can’t tell you any more than that. But we do get a little moment where we can sort of break the rules and we speak, and the audience gets more information about us through those exchanges. But it’s fascinating. When I read it, I was like, ‘how do we do this?!’ and that was enough to make me say ‘oh, this is something I want to do.’”

As to what the audience will take away with them, McMahon says: “It’s not really like a conventional narrative journey, or plot line, because a part of the whole idea is that it’s just the experience of it. You know like there’s a metamorphosis of sorts, but it doesn’t really follow a conventional plot or dramatic arc, it’s more of a meditation.”

Small Mouth SoundsAmber McMahon and Yalin Ozucelik in rehearsals for Small Mouth Sounds. Photograph © Robert Catto

“I guess [people] go to these retreats looking for answers, and all of these characters have these open emotional wounds and looking to be healed or looking [for things] to be solved. And they discover, as the audience do, that that’s never really going to happen so possibly we get to the end of the retreat and we think ‘well, that was a bit of a waste, nothing really happened’. But the audience might see it quite differently, because they’ll be able to actually see the evolution that has taken place that perhaps we don’t sense ourselves,” says Millerchip.

“So, it doesn’t have a nice cosy resolution at the end for any of us, but it has exorcised some trauma or ghost, through the process. So, perhaps it encourages us [that] we just need to open up to asking questions, and maybe that’s the point.”

Small Mouth Sounds plays at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, Sydney, May 3 – 26