By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
A funny thing happens about halfway through Circle Mirror Transformation, playwright Annie Baker's meditation on communication and connection via acting classes. In Theatre Horizon's gentle production, Lauren (Emilie Krause), the sole teenage member of a six-week summer course, is getting fed up with all the creative visualizations and awareness exercises. "Are we gonna do any real acting?" she asks teacher Marty (Nancy Boykin). "Like acting out a play?"
Marty tells a disappointed Lauren no, they won't. And on goes Baker's crafty script, telling this story of the way five people in fictional Shirley, Vt. (Baker's own version of Yoknapatawpha, with three plays set there thus far) briefly join, unite and separate, the way we all do, over and over, throughout our lives.
As the class progresses, so do their relationships to one another, to themselves, for better and for worse. I'd wager one of the reasons this was the second-most produced play in the United States after its 2009 premiere is the novel way it tells its story by hardly telling a story at all. For Baker, language is more hindrance than help, and even when her characters communicate in nonsensical drama-game phrases, perhaps especially then (in one scene, it's "goulash" and "ak-mak") raw, genuine emotion triumphs. It's almost tragic for a playwright to consider how much we rely on words and conclude that they hardly matter when we're face to face.
Matthew Decker directs this fantastic cast with a conductor's touch, raising and lowering the profile of each according to their swells of emotion. Aside from wide-eyed Krause and down-to-earth Boykin, there are David Bardeen's earnest divorcé Schultz, Kim Carson's gorgeous, lonely Theresa, and Bob Weick's floundering graybeard James, all bringing a heartbreaking authenticity to their roles. And while that probably sounds like lots of icky, sticky jargon, here the moments that make you laugh or that make your eyes well up or that catch you entirely by surprise.
Some of the acting exercises and their repetition make for antsy viewing, but stick with it; Baker's an artisan, and everything is placed where it is for a good reason. Her dialogue and built-in extended pauses seem so natural I had to double-check the script to see if the actors were ad-libbing. They weren't. That's what a play without Real Acting feels like: it feels a lot like living.
Circle Mirror Transformation Through March 16 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown Tickets: $25- $35. 610-283-2230 or www.TheatreHorizon.org