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Bess Wohl (Photo courtesy of Bess Wohl )
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Listen to the quiet in Beth Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds, which is launching its national tour at Long Wharf Theatre’s Stage II in New Haven beginning Thursday, Aug. 31 and continuing through Sunday, Sept. 24.
But more important, watch the characters closely, look for the slightest signs of revelation and see how they react—and illuminate—their selves without (almost) saying a word.
The mostly dialogue-less play is set on a silent retreat where a mixed group of folks have come to find spiritual healing or new starts for their lives.
But vows of silence come up against the human need to connect which makes the play at times very funny, other times poignant.
At the play’s beginning—and at several times during the intermission-less work—you hear the voice of an off-stage facilitator giving the arrivals instructions, setting the New Age mood and then leading them in group exercises.
But these characters are, more or less, left to their word-less own—and so is the audience.
“My aspiration was for the audience to watch the play a little differently,” says Wohl from her Brooklyn home, “almost like being detectives, looking for clues that reveal character.”
She got the idea for the play when a friend invited her to a retreat in upstate New York and immediately realized the theatrical potential in the setting and situation “and I started writing notes.” Wohl returned again—this time with her mother—to do further research for the play—and no, she did not keep quiet during her stays. At one point she and her mother escaped the woods to spend the night in a nearby hotel.
“We just couldn’t take it any longer,” she says.
“I wondered if I could write a play without words,” she says. “And since I have a contrarian nature, I set out to prove that I could.”
Earlier versions of the play had no speaking whatsoever; another had talking throughout by all the characters; still another had the characters’ thoughts spoken aloud. But, in the end, she used just minimal dialogue for strategic use in the story.
Wohl says she respects the teachers of such zen centers and the humor in the play does not come at their expense.
“The play has been warmly received by those own the spiritual community,” she notes.
She even practices meditation now—and this time without taking notes.
The play debuted in New York at Ars Nova in 2015 before returning off-Broadway last year for another engagement at the Signature Theatre. Rachel Chavkin, who staged the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Count of 1812, directed the shows in New York, Chavkin also stages the tour which has a new cast. The show will continue on to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami.
The Brooklyn-born Wohl grew up in a “literary-minded household” and always wrote poems and short stories. She graduated Harvard University magna cum laude with a degree in English. She then attended the Yale School of Drama in the acting program, graduating there in 2002. She also wrote some short pieces for the Yale Cabaret, including Cats Talk Back, which later went on to be a winner at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival.
After graduation and over the next decade she acted on TV in such series as Bones, CSI: NY, and Cold Case and films such as The Shaggy Dog, Heights, Flightplan, and Must Love Dogs.
But it is her playwriting career that she is pursuing now.
“When I was acting and auditioning, it was impossible to work on my writing, too,” she says. “I don’t miss the auditions, but if someone wants to just offer me a part...”
The first major film she wrote, Irreplaceable You with Christopher Walken, Steve Coogan, and Michael Huisman, comes out later this year.
Wohl currently has a number of plays and commissions in the pipeline. This summer she was at Cape Cod Theatre Project doing a staged reading of Continuity, “ostensibly skewering the making of a Hollywood blockbuster about the climate crisis.” The play will be part of a new works series this fall at the Goodman Theatre. She was also at the Williamstown Theatre festival working on another new work. And a third commission from Hartford Stage is also in the works, “a play about children” titled Make Believe.
“I always wanted to put kids on stage because everyone says not to do it,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in doing the thing that people says not to do.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.
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