By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
"Body Awareness Week,” as Professor Phyllis explains at the start of the Wilma Theater’s production of Body Awareness, offers “a chance for everyone at Shirley State to just check in.” But in Annie Baker’s compassionate comic drama about a lesbian couple, their son Jared, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome, and a photographer who brings his “male gaze” to the festivities, the shallow political correctness of “checking in” leads to a much deeper excavation.
This is the first full-length play Baker wrote after graduating from NYU (her third, along with Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens — presented earlier this season by Theatre Exile — to be set in Vermont), and though her intimate script spies on both their kitchen table and their pillow talk, its women, Phyllis (Grace Gonglewski) and Joyce (Mary Martello), tend to behave according to their prescribed roles.
Phyllis, the didactic feminist, reacts with strident outrage at Frank Bonitatibus’ (Christopher Coucill) work — photos of unconventional female nudes — while Joyce, Jared’s divorced biological mother, flirts with the artist. The actors, however, warm both characters to their full 98.6 degrees, Gonglewski giving Phyllis a disarming neurotic streak, and Martello softening Joyce with gentle eyes and sad smiles.
Strangely, it’s the men who serve up the surprises here, particularly Dustin Ingram’s painfully awkward but sharp-tongued Jared. In attempting to avoid the Asperger’s diagnosis by exhibiting empathy, he begins to notice empathic deficits among those who profess to love him most. Coucill’s Frank, though his visit is brief, provides the sole source of focused testosterone in Jared’s life, and their halting tete-a-tete about women and seduction is as excruciating as it is funny.
The Wilma team — director Anne Kauffman (returning to the theater after winning two Barrymore Awards for her work on the Wilma's Becky Shaw two seasons ago), set designer Mimi Lien, costumer Rosemarie McKelvey, and lighting designer Thom Weaver — have a unified vision; they want you to feel this family’s domesticity from the inside. It characterizes everything from Lien’s wooden kitchen cabinetry, and the aroma of fresh soup simmering on the stove, to McKelvey’s cozy sweaters and soft shawls, to Weaver’s blackout, which allows only enough light to show a nighttime snowfall as seen through the women’s windows and skylights.
But it’s most apparent in Kauffman’s direction and its underlying suggestion that everyone thrown together in this household wants to do the right thing, even if no one can identify what that is, or if a “right” thing even exists. Still, they keep trying, and that exercise alone provides enough comfort and connection to make their efforts worthwhile, and keep them attached through another day.
Through Feb. 5 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $39 to $66. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.WilmaTheater.org<NO1>cq<NO>