By John Lyle Belden
The stage is so serene, as the actors silently enter one by one, you don’t want to make a noise in the audience, either.
To the delight of American Lives Theatre director Chris Saunders, the rule of silence in this retreat setting of “Small Mouth Sounds” by Bess Wohl, seems to permeate the room, as he presents, in his words, “What if you met a stranger and didn’t have the words to immediately assume everything about them?”
Jan (Kevin Caraher), a nicely dressed older man, calmly takes his seat. Ned (Zacharia Stonerock), wide eyes under his stocking cap, comes in looking unsure of himself. When Rodney (Lukas Felix Schooler), whose manner can’t help but project the fact he is a Yoga master, comes in and takes off his sandals, Ned immediately sheds his shoes and from then on, we have an assumed rule in this meeting space. The no-talking rule is also taken for granted, so it is jarring to hear married(?) couple Joan (Nathalie Cruz) and Judy (Jenni White) enter, bickering. But they get the hint, and soon the voice of the Teacher (Ben Rose) fills the space, exotically sounding like an English-speaking African man.
Teacher opens with a cryptic story of talking frogs; warns that the participants will not necessarily encounter him, or even Enlightenment, but “yourselves;” and gives the rules, which include that aside from a structured Q&A with him once a day, no one is to speak. During this, our last camper, Alicia (Morgan Morton) enters; the fact that she missed an important rule will come back on them later in the play.
Through our mind’s eye and the laying out of mats, the stage also becomes their cabin floor, as we get further impressions of these men and women, and the first lack-of-language barrier issue as Jan and Alicia were, it seems, assigned the same space.
Early on in this journey, the campers are instructed to each write their “intention” on a slip of paper, a source of friction when one accidentally reads another’s. As the drama builds, so does the humor, both drawing interesting and startling exchanges and moments from their self-enforced mime-hood.
Note that this play does include brief nudity, forbidden incense, and illicit use of Fritos. We also get Ned’s “life story,” as he accidentally asks the character’s most profound question. We also get a sense of deep loss – past, present, and future – each participant is working through. Even Rodney, acting blithely like a sort of yogic tourist, comes into some hard lessons.
At some point, practically every rule of the retreat is broken, which even brings Teacher – dealing with off-campus issues and finding Enlightenment via cold medicine – to his own self-reckoning.
Performances are sublime. Schooler uses his real-world yoga knowledge to good effect. Stonerock ably gives us a man struggling with his own identity, in more than the philosophical sense. Morton gives us someone about whom we learn so little yet feel for so much. We read volumes between the lines with White and Cruz – the former as a cancer survivor, and the latter recovering in her own way. And I don’t want to say too much about Caraher, but the revelation of his character sticks with you pleasantly.
Now that I’m outside that space, I feel free to speak up: See “Small Mouth Sounds,” in remaining performances Friday through Sunday, Dec. 10-12, at the District Theatre, 627 Massachusetts Ave., downtown Indianapolis. Info and tickets at americanlivestheatre.org.