Between the lines
In Annie Baker’s play “Body Awareness,” that’s where much of the action happens.
By Naila Francis
Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness” is a small and quiet play.
Long pauses give ample room to the weight of the unspoken, a leisurely pace teases out delicate emotions, the everyday is mined with an exacting precision that throws even the most mundane of actions into bold relief.
But it is in such silence and slowness that the play, now in previews and opening Wednesday at the Wilma Theater, weaves its spell.
“It’s kind of a study in not doing,” says Grace Gonglewski, one of its stars.
But so much “not doing,” as she’s discovered in her first exposure to Baker’s work, can speak volumes.
Take the way a character suspected of having Asperger’s syndrome has very little to say in certain scenes, and is similarly afforded little attention.
“There’s a lot of ignoring that happens, and that says a lot about the way we treat people, the way we treat different people, the way we treat younger people and children. We’re not always very inclusive,” says Gonglewski, a Philadelphia actor who previously appeared at the Wilma in “Life of Galileo.”
“Body Awareness,” which was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play following its off-Broadway debut in 2008, explores a transformative week in the life of an unconventional family in the small town of Shirley, Vt.
Gonglewski stars as Phyllis, a psychology professor in charge of Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorders Week) at Shirley State College. That event has an unexpectedly staggering impact on her life, as well as that of her girlfriend Joyce (Mary Martello) and Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared (Dustin Ingram), whose lack of basic social graces convinces the women that he suffers from Asperger’s.
The ongoing tensions among the three are further heightened by the arrival of their houseguest (Christopher Coucill), a visiting artist who photographs nude women.
Though only her first play — which she’s since followed with the OBIE Award-winning works “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens” — “Body Awareness” introduced Baker as a promising young playwright in American theater.
“I would put her in the group of writers I really love to work with because her ear is so specifically attuned to language,” says director Anne Kauffman. “Her work is so realistic it’s almost hyperrealistic in its realism.
“When we go to the theater, a lot of it is polished language. People don’t have a lot of verbal ticks. But in real life, we have a lot of verbal ticks, we interrupt ourselves a lot, we say ‘um’ a lot. Annie is very aware of those rhythms and those patterns and when you put that onstage, that can be weird and so strange to us.
“She’s incredibly sophisticated. Her language is very, very detailed, and very specific to character, which I know sounds obvious … but it’s tailor-made to each character. Most of the playwrights and new work I’m interested in has to do with how language functions, and although this has a lot of plot to it, language over spectacle and plot is where the delight happens for me.”
Kauffman, who last directed the Barrymore Award-winning “Becky Shaw” at the Wilma, finds a greater theatricality in Baker’s mining of the banal.
“There’s a scene where the play opens up and one of the characters is clipping her toenails. You don’t see that onstage,” she says. “That’s funny because we’re recognizing our own secret habits. She exposes those and it suddenly heightens those activities.
“What she demands of her audience is to live in real time with her characters. To me, that adds to the tension and in a way also adds to a certain uncomfortability because we’re not used to sitting in silence and watching people do these things that we do.”
That tendency to let the action unfold between the lines also makes for more believable characters.
According to Gonglewski, when Baker attended rehearsals one day to work with the cast, she, along with Kauffman, stressed that the script’s four characters never be played with comic intent.
“Both of them are constantly encouraging us to treat our characters gently and not push for laughs but just lovingly see them as flawed human beings, like all of us,” says Gonglewski. “That’s great, when you get a script and you can lean into people’s blind spots and foibles and you’re asked to just be with that.”
She admits her character would be especially easy to poke fun at.
“She is insecure in some ways so she really gloms onto ideology and isms and that makes her feel secure, but in actuality, it’s not the truth. She’s actually quite unforgiving and intolerant in the beginning when she’s proclaiming she’s a feminist and all these things, and yet she has a stranglehold on her lover,” says Gonglewski. “She ends up in a very different place from where she started and that place is more tolerant and confused, actually.”
The other characters are all similarly lost throughout the play, stumbling around with their opinions and perceptions (the more politically correct rechristening of the college’s annual festivities to Body Awareness Week also serves as a reminder of our own tendency to affix labels to those things beyond our control or comprehension).
“I’m a firm believer that any kind of ideology is dangerous if your grip is too tight on it, and I think that this house is a house of ideals and ideas and good intentions and philosophies, and what the play does is it sort of shows how complicated it is to apply your ideals and to apply ideology to a personal situation,” says Kauffman. “The characters aren’t even aware of how fragile their relationships are, or how they’ve been denying themselves or what they’ve been ignoring until a stranger comes into their home and turns everything on its head.
“Everyone’s world in this play is really rocked. Everyone has to look at what they’ve been looking at for so many years in a completely different light. It’s about having to start over in a way.”
That unfolding is as hilarious as it is poignant but ultimately provides few answers or tidy resolutions. Instead, audiences may feel like they’ve arrived to the play mid-arc, dropping in on a continuing drama that allows them a glimpse into their own struggles.
“When an audience is watching, they’re not watching a caricature. It’s like watching yourself,” says Gonglewski. “There’s a delicate balance between truth and hilarity. In a way, that gives the audience a chance to comment, to say, ‘Oh, yes, I do that,’ a chance to cry or to laugh, because we’re just holding up a mirror to nature, no matter how gently, and revealing the truth and not skewing it.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer