According to Bess Wohl, “Small Mouth Sounds,” her unorthodox and critically acclaimed play consisting mostly of characters interacting without dialogue, sprang from the imp of the perverse.
“I set this challenge of writing all these stage directions, in part, because I’ve always hated writing stage directions,” said Wohl, whose play is running at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II.
“I’ve always found that the most boring part of playwriting. I love writing dialogue — the pages just fly by. Stage directions are slow and boring, and nobody cares about how they’re worded because nobody ever finds out.
“I was sort of masochistic, I guess,” she added.
“Small Mouth Sounds,” directed by Rachel Chavkin, examines six runaways from city life together on a silent retreat in the woods.
Directed by a voice attributed to an unseen character called Teacher, the characters confront their personal demons while trying to honor their vows of silence despite their yearning to connect with each other.
The cast consists of Connor Barrett (Jan), Ben Beckley (Ned), Edward Chin-Lyn (Rodney), Orville Mendoza (Teacher), Brenna Palughi (Alicia), Socorro Santiago (Joan) and Cherene Snow (Judy).
“Bess asks the question: Should we be happy?” said Chavkin, whose long association with Ars Nova, a New York company that develops highly inventive collaborations such as “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” brought her together with Wohl, who was in the Ars Nova’s Play Group, a writers workshop.
“The play is obsessed with that question,” she said. “Should that be a goal amidst everything that is happening.
“Also, this play is as funny as anything I’ve ever seen,” Chavkin said. “People are so funny. We’re so humiliated. It goes back to what I love about Bess: that there’s this unbelievable grace in sitting in that humiliation together.”
“Small Mouth Sounds,” presented by Eva Price and Long Wharf, where the touring production runs through Sept. 24, ran for three months Off-Broadway last year. It is based on Wohl’s experience on a similar retreat.
Wohl said that she wrote the play during her two-year residency at Play Group, which culminates with a play reading series called “Out Loud.”
“I thought it would be really fun to write a silent play for this reading series called ‘Out Loud,’” said Wohl, who admitted to feeding her “contrarian” mood at the time.
“I was also interested in this idea that this is a play that nobody could ever do a reading of,” she said. “I was tired of theaters doing readings, readings and readings and not committing to produce or not.”
Though such a piece may sound more appropriate as a novella or screenplay, Wohl was interested in creating “Small Mouth Sounds” strictly as a live, communal experience.
“Since I started working on it, one of my friends said to me ‘Any time an audience goes to the theater, they’re forced into a silent retreat, sitting in an audience,’” she said.
“That made me really excited to have this live audience sort of subtly cast as people on the retreat as well. Doing that as a book or film loses that important part of the story.”
Wohl, who earned her MFA in acting from Yale School of Drama, acted in a YSD production of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” where characters speak rarely, and in hushed tones, during its first act.
She also performed in a production of “The Hour We Knew Nothing About Each Other,” Peter Handke’s one-act play without words, at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
“I thought about that play a lot,” Wohl said, though not consciously while crafting “Small Mouth Sounds.”
“I wonder if (both plays) seeped into my brain some way.”
Chavkin, whose breath-taking staging of “Great Comet” proves that she can stage challenging, multi-dynamic ensemble works gracefully, said that she approached “Small Mouth Sounds” as a dance piece.
“It is indeed hyper-, hyper-choreographed,” she said. “It’s essentially a dance score made up of a symphony of quotidian, goofy, small, tiny, tiny gestures. Nonetheless, a wildly complicated symphony.”
With the six retreat participants virtually onstage throughout the performance, Chavkin said that the actors had to precisely hone their body language because there is “nowhere to hide.”
“The challenge is making sure that the rhythm feels organic and orchestrated in a way that supports whatever cast member (is) doing what they need to do to nail a moment, while also keeping pacing tight,” said Chavkin, who will resume work with Dave Malloy, composer-lyricist-librettist of “Great Comet” on a new adaptation of “Moby-Dick.”
Wohl, who heads to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre this fall with her new play about climate change, “Continuity,” said that, as much as she has grown personally and spiritually through the experience of working on “Small Mouth Sounds,” she’d be hard-pressed to choose between being on the retreat in the play with characters of her own device, or return to the retreat that she went on that serves as the inspiration of her play.
“Oh, gosh — that’s a hard question!” she said. “I have a lot of affection for the characters in my play, but I don’t know if I could stand to be alone in the woods with them! It’s like being alone with six versions of myself.
“I think I would go completely crazy,” she said. “More crazy than I already am.”
E. Kyle Minor is a freelance writer who covers theater for the New Haven Register.