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‘Small Mouth Sounds’: A strong, mostly silent type of play from A Red Orchid

Levi Holloway (from left), Heather Chrisler, Lawrence Grimm, Travis A. Knight, Cynthia Hines and Jennifer Engstrom make up the ensemble cast of “Small Mouth Sounds.”

Levi Holloway (from left), Heather Chrisler, Lawrence Grimm, Travis A. Knight, Cynthia Hines and Jennifer Engstrom make up the ensemble cast of “Small Mouth Sounds.” | Mike Hari

It’s become fashionable in recent years to practice the art of unplugging: from phones, from social media accounts, and overall from the vague semi-lucidity of being always somewhat online. It’s also one area where live theater — usually a good 10 to 30 years behind the cultural curve — has the rest of the world beat. Ever since cell phones were first invented, the theater has been one space where they were strictly verboten.

This shedding of our digital avatars has always carried with it the promise of a more genuine kind of human-to-human connection — the kind of lofty promise that, by definition, can only be intermittently fulfilled, but still. When it does, it’s like some kind of ancient magic.

‘Small Mouth Sounds’
When: Through Dec. 9
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells
Tickets: $30–$40
Info: aredorchidtheatre.org
Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission

With her play “Small Mouth Sounds,” now in a beautiful production from director Shade Murray at A Red Orchid Theatre, playwright Bess Wohl attempts to take these kinds of connections and distill them down to their most elemental forms. The story concerns six strangers attending a silent retreat in the woods, which means that long stretches of the play are entirely wordless. Wohl is stripping away yet another form of public persona-making.

Her play is light on plot and on backstory; it’s mostly concerned with the desire to connect, to find comfort or solace or even just common ground with another human being. In essence, she’s taking that grand theatrical promise and making it the premise. The result is a play that’s warmly introspective, yet crackling with subtle energy.

The play’s six characters include a lesbian couple, played by Jennifer Engstrom and Cynthia Hines, as well as an awkwardly sincere man named Ned (Levi Holloway) and a chiseled yoga instructor (Travis A. Knight). There’s also a young woman (Heather Chrisler) who embodies millennial anxiety and a mysterious though unmistakably melancholy man played by Lawrence Grimm.

The seventh character is the retreat’s leader, voiced by Meighan Gerachis, who remains unseen, but whose eccentric monologues comprise approximately 80 percent of the play’s word count. A wandering Q&A preamble from Ned containing his hilariously tragic life story accounts for at least another 10.

The story plays out like a series of vignettes. We see the characters attend several lectures, wander the grounds, go skinny dipping, have secret sex, be on the lookout for bears, and just generally exist in relation to each other.

Plus, as people do, they all bring their worldly foibles with them. Ned has a on crush on Alicia (Chrisler), while she has eyes for Rodney (Knight). (Knight masterfully exudes a quiet arrogance that aptly undercuts his character’s seeming spiritual prowess.) The couple, Joan (Engstrom) and Judy (Hines), are dealing with a disease diagnosis, and Jan (Grimm) is reckoning with a terrible loss. Even the group’s teacher occasionally breaks off her lessons to answer her cell phone.

Murray is one of Chicago’s best actor’s directors, and this production could be his Exhibit A. The performances feel deeply lived-in, but their interactions are shot through with spontaneity. It would be easy for a play as quiet as this to become too inward or too broad; Murray ensures that it is neither.

Chrisler, meanwhile gives a truly exceptional performance, though at the rate she’s giving great turns across town, they’re quickly becoming the rule, not the exception. She brings so gnawing an intensity to Alicia that you can practically hear the character’s brain whirring from the other side of the room. It’s the kind of performance so wholly familiar that it makes you forget. This isn’t a character. You know this person.

Credit goes to Wohl, as well, for writing a critique of millennials that isn’t also a condescension — a knack for empathetic characterizations that runs through the entire script. Likewise, “Small Mouth Sounds” has its fun with absurdities of New Age lifestyles, but it never discounts the intent behind them: to live better, to experience the world more fully, to be capable of something better.

Maybe this is why the play itself resembles a meditative exercise, leading the audience to a heightened state of awareness. (In the history of loud iPhone buttons, there have never been buttons as deafeningly loud as Alicia’s.) The play is so different from the typical theatergoing experience that it begins to rearrange the synapses in your brain.

It wouldn’t hurt, in fact, to treat “Small Mouth Sounds” as though it were a silent retreat, a chance to sit back, breathe and reboot your lagging spirit. Plays have been known to cast spells from time to time, but you might mistake this one for actual magic.

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.