Some plays stun, thrill and amaze with dramatic conflicts or hilarious misadventures — there’s a reason the adjective theatrical can be used to mean over-the-top. But other plays, when tuned by a sensitive director and presented by an impeccable cast, deliver a subtler and more deeply felt satisfaction.
One such production is “Body Awareness,” from the 5th Wall Theatre and the Richmond Triangle Players. None of the transitions that the play’s four characters goes through during the course of this 90-minute, intermission-free show is earth-shattering, but each is profound.
Along the way, Annie Baker’s smart, contemporary script offers powerful insight into the small ways a family unit can get pushed out of balance and finds clever comedy in how balance can be restored.
The family here consists of Joyce (Melissa Johnston Price), her 21-year-old son, Jared (Chandler Hubbard), and her girlfriend, Phyllis (Sara Heifetz). Phyllis is a psychology professor at a small Vermont college, who’s launched Body Awareness Week at her school. The event is the reason that Frank (Daniel Moore), a photographer who takes artistic pictures of naked women, ends up spending the week as the couple’s houseguest.
The women have immediate, opposite reactions to Frank: Phyllis is appalled by his propagation of female objectification while Joyce is instantly attracted to it and soon voices her determination to pose for him. Jared, socially awkward with behaviors that put him squarely on the autism spectrum, sees Frank’s visit as an opportunity to learn strategies he might use to finally get a woman to have sex with him.
Where director Carol Piersol really triumphs is in enhancing the small moments that make each actor’s performance sing. Price clearly conveys her character’s hesitance about most things in life and the opportunity for self-assertion that she sees in posing for Frank. Once actually in front of Frank’s camera, her delivery of “Ta-da!” may be both the most telling and the funniest line of the play.
Hubbard is so wonderfully tightly wound as Jared that, when he finally breaks into an embarrassed smile during his ultimate sex talk with Frank, it’s like a revelation. While his character acts mostly as catalyst, Moore revels in Frank’s quiet but insistent self-importance.
Heifetz gives a finely wrought portrayal of someone whose ideological purity gets sullied by the messiness of real life. Her delivery of each day’s “Body Awareness” message shows the progression of Joyce’s emotions through excitement to anger to anxiety with more in between. At the performance I attend, Heifetz shows exceptional understanding of her character by providing funny time-filling ad-libs while malfunctioning candles refuse to light. Such quick-witted reactions elevate an excellent performance to a brilliant one.
Set designer David Allan Ballas delineates three areas — kitchen, bedroom and auditorium — where the action plays out that are nicely functional but occasionally a bit cramped. The slight reverb that sound designer Lucian Restivo adds to the auditorium scenes is a nice touch.
When some true dramatics erupt at the end of “Body Awareness,” they end up demonstrating that what causes conflict can also be what binds people together. This may seem like a small insight, but it represents just one of the many cathartic pleasures of this superb show. S
“Body Awareness” runs through May 14. Go to rtriangle.org for tickets and information.