Admirers of Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, which played last season at the Studio Theatre,
where it enjoyed an extended run, and later at Pittsburgh Public Theater, have a chance to see the first in the fictional
"Shirley, VT Trilogy," Body Awareness, now running at the Wilma Theater (to 2/5). A nominee for the New York Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, the play challenges us all to gaze
at the body, and by implication the mind, "and really look at art in a new way." In a most modern riff on
domesticity, Ms. Baker explores relationship dynamics in a household shared by two women, one emotionally challenged son,
and, for a brief time a photographer, an outsider, for a little sexual conflict. If the set-up sounds a tad like The
Kid is [sic] Alright, well the play hit the boards in 2008, while the similarly named movie arrived a couple of years
Anne Kauffman, who directs Body Awareness, received
a 2010 Barrymore Award for her work on Becky Shaw; it was selected as Outstanding Overall Production of a Play as well, for a total of 6 awards. (DC-area viewers will
remember Ms. Kauffman from Woolly Mammoth's production of Stunning a few years back, another of her projects
I was lucky to catch.) She is joined again by set designer Mimi Lien, who also brought home a Barrymore, and the lighting
design of Thom Weaver. Costumer Rosemarie McKelvey and the sound of Rob Kaplowitz will complete the picture. The talented
cast includes Grace Gonglewski, a 4-time Barrymore Award winner (Phyllis), Mary Martello (Joyce), Dustin Ingram (Jared), and
Christopher Coucill (Frank).
character-driven style of comedy is broadly ironic, ranging from cluelessness to parody. Are the characters stereotypes
or send-ups? Or are they us? Phyllis and Joyce's skirmish over the best way to handle the 21 year-old Jared's
increasingly obvious disorder (or is he just acting out partly for attention?) - somewhere along the continuum of autism
it appears - opens up fault lines in their relationship. When freewheeling Frank arrives - the ultimate in New Age artistic
distance (or is it connection?) - each of the characters seems ready for implosion. What looks at first blush to be
a politically correct dispute over values, education, and parental control subtly shifts to matters of identity, consciousness,
and human fulfillment. The artist-model dialectic comes under especial scrutiny: a whole lot of jockeying
for advantage precedes the act of creation, one that looks mutual, but is actually guided. Quicker than you can say
cheese, the playwright frames the people and issues, capturing a moment in time, eternally. When the people are ready,
the artist will appear.
Ms. Kauffman's honest production rings true, with scarcely a false note sounded over 100 leisurely minutes, played
without intermission. Throughout the arch comedy, Body Awareness has a satisfying vagueness of great
art, creating a tension born of mystery and incompleteness searching for resolution. Like the unfinished figures in
Michelangelo's sculpture, the characters struggle to break out of their molds, requiring the viewer to participate in
the process of filling in the gaps - both in knowledge and empathy. (The characters arrive with virtually no back stories:
We know a little about Phyllis and Joyce, though next to nothing about Jared and Frank.) Ms. Gonglewski is a delight
as high strung psychologist-cum-radical feminist. To see her oscillate between her public (self-conscious and deprecating)
and private (strident and opinionated) personae is one of the many pleasures of the show. Another is the performance
of Mr. Ingram as Jared who captures every verbal and physical quirk his highly idiosyncratic character suggests.
Ms. Martello, whose nurturing character absorbs large emotional body blows to keep her family afloat, and Mr. Coucill, who
exhibits a healing wisdom, complete this fine ensemble cast, supportive of the production - one an earth mother, the other
a teacher - and each other. In fact, seeing Ms. Baker's work again, suggests a Jungian structure to her world, replete
with archetypes, duality, acceptance, and fantasy. By the close of the affecting final scene, we'll all have reached some
higher level of understanding, and hopefully, communication.
Ms. Lien's open, tripartite staging - school, kitchen, bedroom - evokes the mood of the play where separate but
distinct voices vie for understanding, combining nicely with the subliminal, surround sound of Mr. Kaplowitz, and Mr. Weaver's
tracking shot lighting. Ms. McKelvey's costumes add pop to the somewhat faded interior landscape.
Body Awareness is the best play I've seen in a few months, a "Wow"
production in my book, and sure to make my Top 10 for `12. If this show is pushed off the list, it will have
been a very good year in theater for me, indeed.
4½ hands, Highly recommended. Photo credit: Alexander Iziliaev
© John F. Glass, January
31 & February2, 2012