There’s one on every meditation retreat: the roommate who crinkles potato chip wrappers all night, keeping you awake; the meditator on the next cushion who squirms nonstop; the know-it-all who flaunts his “enlightenment.” If this sounds familiar, be prepared to laugh uproariously in recognition. If it doesn’t—well, watch and learn.
Playwright Bess Wohl chose the unlikely setting of a silent retreat as the backdrop for her new play, Small Mouth Sounds. The title refers to the grunts and squeaks that pass for communication when talking is forbidden. In the theater, of course, dialogue is king and silence dead air. So what astonishes about this production is how eloquent Wohl’s characters are. Reaching far beyond the vocabulary of mime, they distill their aspirations, fears, failings, and backstories into a breathtaking range of gestures, facial expressions, movements—and the occasional outburst—that tell all.
The action takes place over five days at a retreat center loosely based on Omega Institute in upstate New York. That’s where some years ago Wohl sat her first retreat, led by Pema Chödrön. Since then, she’s done more retreats, and has the retreat format and foibles of retreat-goers (and their teachers) down pat.
The theater itself is the set. A rectangular room with whitewashed walls and wooden beams, it resembles many a meditation hall. The audience of 80 or so is packed into two tiers along either wall. I half expected we’d be seated on zafus, but the only cushions were thin pads to ease the discomfort of sitting for 100 minutes straight—there’s no intermission—on folding chairs. The action alternates between a small stage at one end, furnished with a row of six chairs, and the theater floor, which serves alternately as a lakeside beach and the participants’ sleeping quarters. Views of the outdoors—trees, sky, the lake—are projected onto clerestory windows high on the walls.
The play opens in total darkness. Gentle rain sounds that have been playing softly in the background are suddenly jacked up to full volume, with a crashing storm so violent you expect it to break through the roof. As the sound fades, the lights come up on stage, and the first retreatant, Jan (Erik Lochtefeld), enters. Shaking off the rain, he neatly stows his gear and takes a seat. Tall, slender, 40-ish, he has the look of a retreat veteran, decked out in the L.L.Bean/REI mufti of a city dweller weekending in the wild. As he riffles through papers in a folder, a younger man enters. Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a coiled spring, his face pinched in tension as he wrings out the bottoms of his rain-soaked jeans. Ned’s multicolored knit cap is permanently affixed to his head, even in bed; later, in one of the play’s big reveals, we learn why. Next, Rodney (Babak Tafti) sweeps in and deftly folds himself into full lotus. Beaded and bearded, toned and tanned, he’s the model adept. Ned—or “Hat Guy,” as one character calls him—takes one look at Rodney and is appalled. (Predictably, they’re assigned to share a room.) A kerfuffle in the hallway heralds the arrival of a lesbian couple, arguing over misdirection on the drive up. Joan (Sakina Jaffrey) is slight and quiet; Judy (Marcia DeBonis) is loud, 30 pounds overweight, and clearly in charge. Recognizing the yogi, Judy halts her harangue to gush, “We love your ideas, your videos!” As the five settle into their seats, the teacher (JoJo Gonzalez) speaks. He remains a disembodied voice offstage throughout the play, but we imagine him seated facing his students.
After reciting a dizzying array of rules, only one of which mentions silence, the teacher, in a vaguely Indian accent, launches into the old chestnut about the frog who lives his entire life in a well and then on seeing the ocean for the first time is overcome by the vastness and promptly dies. “I’m not suggesting you’re going to die in these five days, though we all have to go,” the guru says. “But you may not be able to return to the well.” Everyone looks stunned.
As the teacher wearily instructs the group, “Ask questions simply: refrain from telling me your full life story,” the sixth retreatant barges in, overstuffed duffels and a Whole Foods shopping bag spilling from her arms. Alicia (Jessica Almasy) is clearly a hot mess. As she flops on her chair, faint strains of rock music emanate from her purse. “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits,” the teacher intones. “After this, you don’t ever have to go back to who you are.”
But we know that they—and we—will go back to who we are. The retreatants waste no time revealing themselves and their habits: desperately seeking a cellular hot spot; dissolving in giggles or sobs; cruising for sex; wrestling with illness and loss; confronting betrayal. Hat Guy breaks silence with the only long speech of the play, spilling out his story in excruciating detail. As for the teacher? Guess.
Practitioners will have a field day at Small Mouth Sounds. If you can’t see yourself in the characters, you’ll certainly recognize people you’ve encountered on retreat. And surely you can admit to at least some identification—if only with the woman who, in the throes of a meltdown, drops her tote and watches an entire bag of candies roll across the floor.
Wohl, a seasoned film and sitcom writer with degrees from Harvard and Yale Drama School, is also a sincere practitioner of yoga and meditation. All the drama—even the pain—in Small Mouth Sounds is rendered with as much warmth and humanity as satire, allowing us to laugh guilt free. There are no dramatic awakenings onstage. But in the end everyone—audience included—comes to see that not everything worth knowing about one another is discoverable in silence.
Small Mouth Noises has played to rave reviews and a sold-out house since previews began March 10 (it opened on March 23); the run has been extended through Saturday, April 25. So beg, borrow, or call in favors to get a ticket, but don’t let this delicious play pass you by—even if it means joining the standby line.
Just ask the aspiring actor who waited three hours last Friday night to snag one of two seats released at curtain time. He wiled away the hours telling fellow standbys about Buddhist teachers and the retreat on Maui he is attending later this month, led by Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and Roshi Joan Halifax. It’s his first retreat, the young man said. Small Mouth Sounds, with its antic but oh-so-telling view, was the perfect sendoff.
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