Body Awareness by Annie Baker. Directed by Knud Adams.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jennifer Rohn, Bruce McKenzie, David Rosenblatt, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer; photo: Rick Teller
Caitlin McDonough-Thayer, Jennifer Rohn, David Rosenblatt; photo: Rick Teller
"This is great. A Goy teaching a Jew how to do Shabbot . . . on a Tuesday."
One week in Shirley, Vermont at the home of Joyce and Phyllis, the week of a Body Awareness festival, wreaks humorous havoc on a family of three: the two women and Joyce’s son Jared who may, but claims he doesn’t, have Asberger’s Syndrome, the main symptom of which is significant trouble with social situations.
This Jared has in spades. He exhibits lots of other symptoms including the total denial of anything wrong and on top of all of it he constantly threatens to kill his mother. I know you are thinking this isn’t a comedy, but on the stage of the Chester Theatre Company in a play called "Body Awareness" by Amherst native Annie Baker, it is a relevant part of a comedy of human errors. Phyllis is an outspoken Lesbian. Joyce is a recent Lesbian whose earlier marriage produced Jared. His boyishness is developmental, not actual and his attitudes are adult, violent and unpredictable. Enter a houseguest, an invited artist for the festival, named Frank and whatever can happen does happen.
In the hands of a playwright such as Joe Orton this would be a very, very dark situation. If Tennessee Williams had crafted the play it would be sly insinuations to the left and blatant insults somewhere off right. As Annie Baker tells this story it is down-front, up-right and almost naked. But not quite. Frank’s art is nude photography, always women and not always young and beautiful women. Joyce is intrigued and Phyllis is annoyed. In the ensuing five days and nights this family group undergoes major changes at the hands of this human catalyst.
Jennifer Rohn plays Joyce, a mostly controlled and patient woman who can tolerate her son’s quixotic changes and implied threats without an emotional splat. Joyce is a willing listener and an open mind and heart to new acquaintances. Her ease with people upsets Phyllis who wants her lover of three years to pay attention to her needs and ideas first and foremost. Rohn plays her partner’s needs to the ultimate, but is never insincere or false. She loves Phyllis and she loves Jared and she manages both of these loves with a steady hand and a calm demeanor. Rohn can turn a sweet moment into a charming light one; she can alter darkness with a gesture or a smile. She does this very well. Her kittenish moments with Frank are a throw-back to who she once was and as Rohn plays those moments they are deliberately awkward and so loveable they spell out the woman’s name up to the third letter. It’s a lovely interpretation.
Frank, though, is a shallow man with unstated obsessions that loom behind his camera lens. In the Thursday scene (the play moves through the week of the festival) he has a chat about sex with young Jared that is both alarming and disarming. Bruce McKenzie plays this for all it is worth and he draws very clean lines between his sets of approaches. From his first entrance to his final appearance he is a man who makes every home his own home even when he’s not wanted. McKenzie makes this very real. The actor has a dry voice and manner that delineates the character well, but leaves us distanced from him. Perhaps that is good. This is the women’s play, and the boy’s, but never the man’s and McKenzie manages to keep his emotional distance even when playing an important scene.
Caitlin McDonough-Thayer is Phyllis whose emotional crack-up comes early and keeps coming until she has disgraced herself at her own festival. This is a talented actress who can display emotions her character is hiding without betraying the writing. When she and Rohn fight in bed there is a reminiscent feeling - we’ve seen this before, maybe had it ourselves. She makes the immediacy of such things feel absolute and inner-driven. She can humiliate and anger her partner one second and jump into a reconciliation in another one and justify the author’s bad/good dichotomy with a naturalness that makes us feel almost like the intruder that Frank is in their home.
The real star of this production, though, is David Rosenblatt as Jared. Obsessive Jared. Depressed Jared. Curious and quixotic and crazy with cleverness Jared. Rosenblatt has the look just right for his character and the stance and the motions. He plays with fire knowing that fire can . . . and will burn. Rosenblatt uses his voice to shake off each internal change, always presenting a new side of Jared to view. Constantly fascinating he delivers perfectly in every moment of this one-act play.
Travis A. George’s set is a combination of the ascetic and the academic/domestic. Three-quarters of three squared arches define spaces that would otherwise just melt into one another. This speaks to the nature of this family residence well. Heather Crocker Aulenback provides the players very appropriate costumes and James McNamara lights the whole thing effectively, even using nearly total darkness a few times to throw light on a subject. Tom Shread’s sound design is just fine.
Knud Adams has given a rhythm to the internal rhyme scheme of Baker’s plot. She has provided the Christmas tree-like bones of the play with some nice conversational decorations, but Adams has woven in the lights and colors with his clever juxtapositions of people and props. The final moment of the play is a prime example. Jared is transformed in costume, mood and position and the two women have reconciled without doing so and in their concentration on what to do next Frank takes his professional position with a pretty clear intent. Throughout the play Adams keeps his players in just such a picture. This is what Frank is about professionally and Joyce is about emotionally. Adams uses this to the play’s clear advantage.
This unusual look at the family unit is a perfect fit for the Chester Theatre Company’s space and talents. It harks back, a bit, to last season’s show "The Swan" and like that play makes the small space in the Chester Town Hall feel a whole lot larger.
Body Awareness plays at the Chester Theatre Company’s Town Hall stage located at 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, Massachusetts through August 11. For tickets and information call the box office at 1-800-595-4TIX or go on line at www.chesterheatre.org.