A warm August afternoon in New York City in a non-descript rehearsal hall on 45th Street.
The cast of Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds – Connor Barrett, Ben Beckley, Edward Chin-Lyn, Orville Mendoza, Brenna Palughi, Socorro Santiago, and Cherene Snow – have been working on the play for just a couple of days thus far. They’ve staged the bare bones of the first scene, simply walking through their actions, not yet mining the work’s considerable emotional depths.
For the cast, learning how comfortable they are with silence is both something they and their characters will have to find out. The play follows a group of strangers as they attend a (mostly) silent retreat. The silence is occasionally broken by the words of an off-stage Teacher, encouraging, exhorting, and excoriating them throughout the piece. It’s a setting rife with opportunity for deeply human interplay. Indeed the reviews of the play point to both the humor and the poignancy of Wohl’s carefully crafted script. “The biggest idea in the play for me is that no one is perfect, and in that imperfection, no one is ever really alone,” said Mendoza, who is playing the Teacher in this production.
Long Wharf Theatre has been helping to launch the first national tour of the play. “Word travels fast when something really cool is happening,” said Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who fell in love with the play. “It’s a humane, beautiful, funny, sad, moving, and inspirational story about seekers trying to find a better life.” Reviewers love the play. The New York Times describes it as possessing wit, compassion, and sparkle. The play is something people discovered for themselves and told others about.
Wohl’s mostly silent script is a mix of stage direction – something she admits she disliked writing in the past – and lengthy character biographies. The possibility of inner life for the characters is extraordinarily deep. But those explorations would come later.
On this particular Thursday, the group is still getting to know each other. They are learning about each other on the eve of a long journey. The actors were working with Long Wharf Theatre staff, talking on camera about their initial thoughts on the play and some of the life experiences they felt would inform their work. They then put on their costumes for a photo shoot.
Assistant director Lauren Z. Adelman offered a few brief remarks to the cast before photographer Ben Arons began shooting. “Try to forget this is happening,” Arons said, gesturing to the camera.
Orville Mendoza, playing the Teacher, read a scene towards the end of the play, one the other actors have not yet heard. Without giving away too much, it’s a complex moment, one in which the audience realizes the Teacher needs his students as much as they need him. The actors settle on their folding chairs, relaxed with each other. Arons begins to shoot photos. Mendoza hunches behind a microphone and a music stand, and begins to speak. “Everybody focus,” the Teacher commands.
He talks. The actors listen. And the room changes. Arons’ camera is far away. The actors melt into the lives of the characters. You see their pain and their misgivings. Though they are silent, you understand what they are going through and can speculate on their thoughts. Because of the silence, their smallest gestures compel. Hands folding. A small glance. A deep breath. Averted eyes. “I beg you. Change. Somebody please change,” Mendoza pleads.
Yes, it was a photoshoot, a routine part of every actor’s duties. But the vibe was different. The potential power of Small Mouth Sounds was on full display. The spell of the scene is broken a moment later, and the group cheers for Mendoza’s powerful performance.
The play offers a chance for honest personal discovery, a place for actors and characters to intersect in unique and meaningful ways. Long Wharf Theatre’s Small Mouth Sounds highlights the craft of acting in perhaps its purest form.
Want to know what it was like for the actor’s? Cherene Snow (Judy) shares her perspective on the photo shoot experience here.
The production runs from August 30 through September 24, 2017 on Stage II. Tickets start at $29 and are available at longwharf.org or by calling 203-787-4282.