This week we woke to another mass shooting: a targeted hate crime, another act of domestic terrorism, another example of the worst in humanity. The next day we woke to a list of names: eleven human beings who sought a shared experience rooted in faith and connection, things which, in large part, are the antidote to the ruthless hatred that pervades. Things which, when I’m lucky, I find at the theater.
On days like these, I question what theater can offer: are plays just escapism, and is escapism wise? Story, in the face of real violence, oppression and destruction, is sometimes just story. Why, when this country is collapsing, when people are slaughtered simply for showing up at their place of worship, when there is violence and pain and injustice everywhere, do we focus our time and our money and our resources on anything other than figuring out how to make real change?
With “Small Mouth Sounds,” Bess Wohl asks those questions, too. For a play that unfolds in silence, her questions are big and loud. And we get to ask them with her. It seems like a play set in a silent retreat might be the ultimate escapism, but in Wohl’s hands “Small Mouth Sounds” reaches beyond the traditional theatrical experience to engage us in something communal.
Wohl introduces us to seven people who are trying to make sense of their pain, trying to grow and understand their world through silence and meditation, trying hard—but not too hard—to change. Through the genius of this script and performances from Meighan Gerachis, Lawrence Grimm and the rest of Shade Murray’s talented cast, we either see or hear their experience but rarely both. The absence of words is not the absence of conflict, but it is the absence of small talk and empty talk and talk that replaces action. With little room to posture and profess, “Small Mouth Sounds” shines a rare light, through silence, on the intimacy and the commonality of these characters. The journey feels precious. We move beyond just story into something real, and that is the power of theater.
Wohl’s play, much like the retreat, gives us a moment to breathe, a moment away, a moment to come back to our most vulnerable, most intimate selves and then drops us back off in a cruel and unpredictable world, a little softer, a little more human, a little more open to each other’s humanness. “Small Mouth Sounds” is a healing and heartbreaking experience that, like a lot of Wohl’s work, lives in the tension between beauty and devastation, challenging us to hold both things at once and never discounting either truth.
I don’t think that plays can solve all the problems of the world, as much as I wish that they could. But work like “Small Mouth Sounds” offers us empathy and renewal; faith and community and the desire to protect them; a deeper awareness of the problems of the world, and perhaps some of the tools to address them. (Erin Shea Brady)
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 North Wells, (312)943-8722, aredorchidtheatre.org, $30. Through December 9.