You won’t see Orville Mendoza in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, but you’ll hear his sonorous voice throughout. His off-stage performance as the teacher at a meditation retreat is as full-bodied as Scarlett Johansson’s was in the movie Her. Six guests spend a weekend away together at a lakeside sanctuary in search of his spiritual guidance. Director Rachel Chavkin positions the actors so that they look up to him as he speaks. But this disembodied guru isn’t a substitute for some omniscient deity — the playwright fills him with as many doubts and foibles as the supplicants who have arrived there seeking enlightenment.
In each successive monologue, the teacher’s equanimity begins to falter as it slowly swells with self-doubt. His first koan, about two frogs comparing notes about their different watery habitats, engenders looks that are more confused than illuminated. It’s one of many signs the participants may not be cut out for transcendence. Exactly what each individual wants from the experience, though, is held in reserve from the audience — because the retreat is a silent one. Actors usually rely on their vocal inflections to convey the emotional lives of their characters. Here, they are all required to become the most efficient mimes they can be.
If you’re thinking that the effect of watching six people not talking on stage is going to wear thin, it doesn’t. It’s a theatrical palate cleanser. Small Mouth Sounds is often wordless and often funny, but seldom dull. Whatever oversized expressions and exaggerated arm movements the actors employ, they all make sense in the context of both the setting and in terms of who these people are. The characters don’t introduce themselves to each other or, by extension, to us. It’s up to the audience, with a degree of mindfulness, to pay attention to their details — postures, clothing and gestures, the sighs and moans — in order to figure them out.
Jan (Connor Barrett) sits down first. He is tall, bearded, and dressed like a hippie lumberjack. Mosquitoes swarm around him like tiny vampires drawing out his blood. There’s something innocent and defenseless about him that makes him an easy target. Warily, a middle-aged Ned (Ben Beckley) enters the room without any self-confidence. Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) leads with his slender hips, in blue jeans that firmly grip his anatomy. He’s the guy you envy in yoga classes. His perfect body can stretch in every direction to infinity while making you even more aware of your own physical limitations and inadequacies.
All of this masculine energy is soon broken up by Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow). At first, they seem like girlfriends on a getaway until they cuddle later that night inside their tent like actual girlfriends. They’ve come for a reason, but, until now, haven’t been able to articulate it to each other. When these five strangers are settled uncomfortably close to one another, the teacher spells out the usual rules. No speaking, drinking, smoking, drugging or technology. That’s when Alicia (Brenna Palughi) stumbles into the room. She’s a raw, emotional mess who can’t sit still without breaking into tears.
Small Mouth Sounds gently mocks but doesn’t dismiss their suffering. That’s where the play creates a space for both comedy and tragedy. The spiritual journeys of men and women may be flawed but the playwright acknowledges their efforts, however constrained, at becoming better human beings. Of the six, we really only learn the particulars of Ned’s unhappy life in what might be the play’s longest, but not the saddest, monologue. What Wohl doesn’t do is turn the play into The Breakfast Club for the New Age. The characters don’t all bond. Because of that realistic approach, the intimacies, when they are finally exchanged, have more weight when we find them out. That silly story about the two frogs might just be a metaphor for an unspeakable sorrow, until someone utters it as the play’s final, devastating line.
Small Mouth Sounds, through Dec. 10, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. $30-$100; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.