The Sounds Of [Not Quite] Silence
If six strangers walk into a meditation retreat and no one else is around to hear it, do they make a sound?
What about the booming, omnipresent voice that ushers them to quietude, one by one?
Or the girl who silent cries over in the corner, just audibly enough for a wheezy, high-pitched whistle to escape from her mouth?
Such are the questions raised—and largely answered—in Beth Wohl’s funny and poignant Small Mouth Sounds, on at Long Wharf Theatre now through Sept 24. Directed by Rachel Chavkin with a tight-knit cast of seven, the work is surprising and candid, packing a few punches as it unfolds over almost two hours.
The premise of Small Mouth Sounds, already a running joke among silent retreat-goers, is simple: Four strangers and a couple walk into a silent meditation retreat in the middle of the woods, aiming for inner peace and serenity by the end of their five-day sojourn. Heavy rain falls on the roof, a sort of unexpected accompaniment to their arrival.
There is Jan (Connor Barrett), already silent and holding his backpack to his chest like a keepsake. Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a television-famous Yogi whose emotional maturity may not be as nimble as his body. Neurotic, never-quite-prepared Ned (Ben Beckley) and couple Joan and Judy (Soccoro Santiago and Cherene Snow), who appear to be very much in love with each other.
At the last minute, there’s also Alicia (Brenna Palughi), looking every bit a hot mess with her parka and never-ending trail of stuff. A teacher’s voice (Oscar Mendoza) booms over the group, and with it, six pupils appear ready and willing to leave their voices (and technology, food, and cigarettes) behind in search of spiritual awakening.
Behind them, Laura Jellinek’s zen-ish set with thin, bamboo-like screens and Andrew Schneider’s video projections of trees, snow and water transport them somewhere other-worldly. Almost.
It’s a tricky little thing, enlightenment. After the collective vow of silence, there’s some of what one might expect there: exaggerated, flailing limbs to illustrate both candor and calamity, unintentional giggles and moans in the darkness, whole vignettes done in physical parody.
These situate the audience in the world of Small Mouth Sounds — an incense-scented, singing-bowl-striking, yoga-mat-rolling universe where there’s an elusive peace everywhere. As Rodney, Chin-Lyn is a master of this, working through a shticky, gumbi-like stretching routine that leaves the audience in stitches.
So too is Ned, who starts his silent week off on the wrong foot when he balks at Rodney’s use of incense — a fire hazard in their shared cabin — and mimes a climbing wall of flames before extinguishing the burn with a handful of packed snow. That’s just the tip of his karmically bad iceberg. He seems to be forever searching — for a pen, for affection, for physical confidence, for propulsive inner change.
Others revel in the silence, a sort of testament to the ease of following someone else’s house rules. At first, at least. Like Joan and Judy, who seem to know each other’s bodies so well that silence won’t be a problem. Or Jan, who doesn’t raise his voice whilst being eaten alive by mosquitoes, but lifts his arms in dismay, slaps the bugs forcibly away with guttural grunts, and looks on at his fellow enlightenment-seekers with big, sad eyes. Who has more secrets than it seems one body can contain.
As the play moves beyond exposition, Wohl explores what it means to search for answers withinand outside of oneself. Without speech, characters infer each other’s personalities, second-guessing themselves throughout. Unlikely friendships form in cabins and meditation meetings. Nonverbal admissions of lust and anger are acted out in gaze and gesture alone. Wordless expressions of gratitude reveal themselves when characters (and we the audience, by extension) least expect it.
Words, then, are equally shocking. In a work where silence is the norm, moments of speech weigh heavy, and feel like they have to be earned. When Ned launches into an existential and meandering monologue about purpose (just imagine Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” with diarrhea), the stream of words is so unexpected that it feels assaulting and gratuitous.
A closer listen, and that’s not exactly the case. He’s suffered personal trauma, the people he loves have left, and he wants to know what might be coming next. Told in emotional fits and starts, it may be convoluted. But it’s also deeply relatable — because really, don’t we all want to know what’s coming next?
Small Mouth Sounds is not without some missteps on Wohl’s part. In the latter half of the play, characters are overtaken by a compulsion to over-explain and oversimplify, spoon feeding the audience as they break their silence (and the teacher’s rules) to tie up many of the script’s loose ends. Silence has the power to be a salve; speech too often feels like a missed opportunity. In a not-totally-surprising twist, Joan and Judy are the most egregious offenders, using words where they don't really need to. Or perhaps, until they're ready to. Alicia’s character too is more interesting when her mouth is off, and she reaches resolution — via rule breaking — too quickly for it to seem totally realistic.
But these are minor structural errors, handled heroically by the cast and not so great that they threaten to undo the script. For her fumble on Joan and Judy, Wohl sticks the landing on Jan, with a sort of profound, deeply thoughtful joke that neither characters nor audience see coming. With so much silence, she has also achieved something triumphant: an audience that breathes, laughs, and tenses up right alongside the characters.
Indeed Small Mouth Sounds speaks volumes. It does not go quietly into that good night, leaving the audience instead with potent themes of interconnectedness, self-control, and personal contentment. And with the advice that if we just breathe, everything will be okay.
Or something like okay. Which is exactly how it’s supposed to be.