By locating her play Small Mouth Sounds at a silent retreat, American playwright Bess Wohl sets an interesting challenge for the cast, since most of the action is wordless.
The charming comedy, which premiered in the US in 2015, features six people who arrive at a rural retreat to undertake a week-long spiritual course run by a guru who still has some way to go on the transcendental front himself. During an introduction by the disembodied voice of the guru (who we never see), the participants – who are lined up on a row of chairs – are told that they mustn’t use their phone, eat food in their room, or talk, though they are welcome to swim in the lake (naked if they like). Oh, and they should watch out for the panther.
Sharon Millerchip, Jane Phegan, Justin Smith, Dorje Swallow, Amber McMahon and Yalin Ozucelik. Photograph © Robert Catto
It’s soon clear that the participants all have emotional baggage they are hoping to address. In his daggy shorts and battered backpack, Jan (Justin Smith) looks decidedly awkward when he first arrives, and later puts a clearly precious photograph next to his sleeping bag. The rather nerdy Ned (Yalin Ozucelik) also seems rather anxious and ill at ease in the surroundings, and is none too impressed with the showy meditative poses of the confident, yoga-toned Rodney (Dorje Swallow), who wears hippie-like cheesecloth and beads.
Then there’s a couple, Joan (Sharon Millerchip) and Judy (Jane Phegan) who are bickering when they arrive, but who are both warm, intelligent women, and the frazzled, miserable Alicia (Amber McMahon), who arrives late with three times the luggage of anyone else, and who has scant regard for the rules regarding phones and food.
As the 90-minute play unfolds, we learn some – though by no means all – of what is going on in their lives at that time. But with an excellent team of actors, we get a keen sense of the kinds of people each of the characters are, and feel for all of them as relationships and animosities are forged, heartaches revealed, and secrets exposed.
Director Jo Turner (who also voices the guru) has done a good job of staging the play on a set designed by Jeremy Allen, who uses chairs for the scenes with the guru, and a Japanese paper wall which opens up to reveal a garden. Turner choreographs the actors to move the chairs on and off, adding a nice touch to the scene changes.
The cast do a terrific job overall. Initially, some of the comedy is too broadly played but that settles as the play progresses, and all the actors do a sterling job of conveying their emotions physically. In the only monologue in the play – the addition of which comes as a welcome fillip structurally – Ozucelik gives a touching performance.
By the play’s end, nothing earth-shattering has happened, but we have briefly come to know six very different people, and shared some touching time with them in a wry, unusual comedy.
Small Mouth Sounds plays at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, Sydney until May 26