When a play’s printed advisory warns of awkward silence along with its mature subject matter, that’s something unheard of in theatre, where reams of spoken lines are the norm.
The alert can be found on the Segal Centre’s website for Bess Wohl’s award-winning comedy-drama Small Mouth Sounds that’s about to bring unusual quiet to the Segal stage from Feb. 9 to March 1.
“I got to see it in New York when, in a season where you may have 50 new plays, this was one of the ones that people kept talking about,” says Lisa Rubin, Segal’s artistic and executive director. She chose Caitlin Murphy, her right-hand artistic associate, who directed last season’s brilliantly staged A Doll’s House, Part 2, to direct.
“It’s a real challenge to bring the kind of work I usually do on text to the non-verbal,” says Murphy, who holds a master’s degree in English literature along with 20 years of theatre experience, that includes acting, directing and writing her own plays.
Small Mouth Sounds, in a way, invites the director and cast to become playwrights as they interpret the characters. Certainly, they respect Wohl’s copious introductory notes but the sparse script invites originality and no two productions of this show can be the same.
The play follows six harried city dwellers through a five-day silent retreat where words are not permitted in the bucolic setting of a woodsy rural ashram-type resort.
Though they aren’t allowed to speak, their body language is eloquent and by play’s end the audience knows them intimately on an instinctive level.
Rubin says that her cheeks hurt from smiling while watching the show, though the sometimes tragic baggage some of the participants bring along makes for sobering moments as well.
“It’s what it means to have human communication reduced to its most basic foundation,” says Murphy, who follows in the cinematic footsteps of Jean-Jacques Annaud who made a sensation of the wordless caveman saga Quest for Fire starring Ron Perlman.
“When you take out language, things get a lot more interesting in a lot of ways. It’s like reading people in real life at the bus stop. The playwright is addressing judgment, how much we decide about people without actually knowing them,” Murphy says.
“It’s also an opportunity to reflect on what it means to return to the fundamentals of being human in person-to-person connections. We’ve gotten arrogant about how much we can do digitally.”
Staged in the intimate Segal Studio, the audience will be sitting in sections facing one another on either side of the playing area, another hint at the need to reach across the communication gap.
Only one of the characters in the play is really “into” the yoga scene, with the others reluctantly there, but desperate to find their way out of the hurts life has dealt them.
Their teacher, hired by the resort to guide them to nirvana, is just a disembodied voice that, as it turns out, has his own quirks.
“The teacher is asking these people to find meaning within themselves, knowing that it helps when you connect with others, as well,” Rubin says.
The timely themes of mental health and self-care carry through to a wellness library set up in the Segal lobby.
“I asked all the staff to bring in any books that have been a source of wisdom, solace or insight in terms of life’s slings and arrows,” Murphy says. “It’s a theme that’s running through a lot of people’s lives right now, of trying to feel better in a world that feels very loud and overwhelming.”
Murphy admits that she is “attracted to plays that feel audacious. How do you set a play in a silent retreat? It makes no sense! And that’s the point of entry.”
Tickets are available at 514-739-7944 or www.segalcentre.org.