By no means does Bess Wohl entirely dispense with words in “Small Mouth Sounds,’’ but they are a secondary — and, you’re almost persuaded by the end, inferior — means of expression in Wohl’s exquisite little gem of a play.
Under the sure-handed direction of M. Bevin O’Gara and featuring a spot-on cast of seven at SpeakEasy Stage Company, the seriocomic “Small Mouth Sounds’’ taps into the expressive capacity of silence in a way that might have earned approving nods from Chaplin, Keaton, or Marceau. Those masters knew a thing or two about the nonverbal ways to convey the intricate workings of a private consciousness; they also understood how many meaningful social exchanges can transpire with a glance, a gesture, a sigh, the faintest flicker of a facial expression.
While Harold Pinter famously made copious use of pauses in his dramas, and a contemporary writer like Annie Baker does, too, “Small Mouth Sounds’’ goes well beyond that in terms of formal innovation, building entire scenes on long stretches where no one says a word. (In some ways, though, Wohl’s play is reminiscent of Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation,’’ produced by Huntington Theatre Company in 2010, which also is about damaged people who reveal their vulnerabilities in a group setting — in this case, an acting class.) It is body language that speaks most loudly in the alternately touching and funny “Small Mouth Sounds,’’ and that language says plenty.
But Wohl, a Harvard grad, astutely does not overload her play with more thematic weight than it can carry as six lost or wounded souls try to get whole again at a New Age-y spiritual retreat while navigating fresh interpersonal connections and conflicts that only complicate their elusive quest for inner peace.
The devastating moments, when they arrive, feel earned; the humor, when it surfaces, does not feel forced or arbitrary. As the play proceeds, “Small Mouth Sounds’’ also subtly upends a few assumptions we might harbor about the relationships we see forming and dissolving onstage. Though deceptively modest in scope, “Small Mouth Sounds’’ works on multiple levels: as a character study, a satire of touchy-feely psychobabble, an ensemble piece.
The six visitors to the spiritual retreat, most of them strangers to one another, consist of smugly confident Rodney (Sam Simahk), clearly a veteran of such retreats, who wastes no time taking off his shirt (later on Simahk is completely nude during one scene); hyperactive, headphones-wearing Alicia (Gigi Watson), the youngest in the group; somber, thoughtful Judy (Celeste Oliva), who approaches the retreat with a sense of purposeful mission, as though trying to solve a problem; Joan (Kerry A. Dowling), who periodically burns with anger for reasons that will eventually become clear; poignantly insecure Ned (Nael Nacer), trailing a Job-like history of hard luck; and mild-mannered Jan (Barlow Adamson), whose final word is a haunting one that reaches back to the beginning of the play.
Their time together is punctuated by small vexations (snoring, the loud munching of snacks), mystifying exercises, and individual encounters that turn unexpectedly deep — all of it undertaken under the wayward guidance of an eccentrically autocratic teacher. Played by none other than Marianna Bassham — whose manifold gifts, it turns out, include voice acting — it is this mysteriously accented, amusingly self-dramatizing, and entirely unseen guru who does most of the talking in “Small Mouth Sounds.’’ (As an extra treat, Bassham also deploys the best snort-laugh since Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine left her perch at the telephone switchboard.)
The Roberts Studio Theatre, SpeakEasy’s usual home, has been reconfigured as a thrust stage, with the audience grouped on three sides. That lends an air of intimacy to a play that needs it, given how much rides on small nuances of expression and movement. The production features an uncluttered, straightforward set design by Cristina Todesco and lighting design of pinpoint precision by Annie Wiegand, who unshowily captures the ebb and flow of the play’s shifts in perspective.
Each member of the cast is given a chance to shine at some point, and each makes the most of it. Perhaps my favorite moment: When Nacer’s Ned is called upon to go first in a ritual involving the burning of written “intentions’’ in a brass bowl, and Nacer creates a comic ballet out of Ned’s flailing perplexity.
It could well be that Wohl’s play requires a cast of the caliber of this one to fully work. But that’s a challenge future directors and future audiences will have to wrestle with. For O’Gara, who made her mark at SpeakEasy with the likes of “Tribes’’ and “Clybourne Park’’ before decamping to assume artistic leadership of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Kitchen Theatre Company, this production has to be counted as a successful return visit. And for any Boston theatergoer hankering to christen the still-young year with a smart, absorbing, and original play, you need look no further.
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS
Play by Bess Wohl. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 2. Tickets from $25, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.