Annie Baker's first full-length play, Body Awareness, was published in 2008. She has gone on to write two more plays, all of which are set in "Shirley, VT," and all of which are compact examinations of subject matter that stirs vivid and often volatile debate. Deep Dish Theater Company's current production of Body Awareness emphasizes the compactness of Baker's work while allowing the "issues" of the play to roam free. A simple description of the household unlocks a wide range of such material.
There are only four characters. Phyllis (Susannah Hough) is a Ph.D. and a professor of psychology at Shirley State College. Joyce (Catherine Rodgers) is a high school teacher. Jared (Sean Casserly), Joyce's 25-year-old son, is working for McDonald's. It is clear that Jared is socially challenged in some way, but he is also extremely sharp-minded — and sharp-witted. Phyllis and Joyce are a couple; and the two of them have been trying to get Jared to understand that they both feel he is suffering under Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. Jared, however, is having none of it. He has read the definitive book on the subject, whose publication in 1994 identified Asperger's Syndrome.
The family lives in Joyce's home, which is compactly and beautifully fitted onto the Deep Dish stage. The set, designed by Rob Hamilton, shows, from stage left, the kitchen and rear entry, Joyce and Phyl's bedroom, and a sort of entry-slash-"other locales" area stage right. This area is most often the auditorium of the Shirley State College, where Phyl (the moniker "Dr. Phyl" must be quashed) is hostess for the annual "Body Awareness" seminar; it takes place during the week we are staying with the family. It is through this seminar that the family and the audience meet Frank (Equity actor Bill Humphreys), a photographer whose works are on display for the event. He is a house guest of the family for the duration.
The work is comedic and is presented in a laid-back fashion. During the play, Phyl comes to see Frank as Public Enemy No. 1, a man who "gets off" on taking nude photographs of women who, because of his reputation, come to him voluntarily for sittings. According to Frank, these sessions are quite cathartic for the women; and they leave his studio the stronger for it. Joyce finds the photos beautiful; Phyl calls them trash. She feels Frank is single-handedly destroying everything she has put into this seminar.
It is interesting to note here that, in a play called Body Awareness, there is a phenomenal lack of skin on display. Costume designer Mardi Magoo puts full dress and long sleeves, dark stockings, and even full-length nightgowns on both the women, and long sleeves and pants on the men — and even, for Frank, a beret. There is nearly a Middle Eastern eschewing of the revealed body in this play. It is worth wondering whether or not that is a part of the play as designed by playwright Annie Baker.
Throughout the show, we see both women trying to cope with Jared's condition. Jared, for his own part, wishes to work for the Oxford English Dictionary as a lexicographer. He is also seeking to obtain a girlfriend. He has never had a girlfriend before, and he wishes to consult Frank on how to go about getting one. Phyl is dismayed at just the thought.
Joyce brings the play to its climax by deciding that she would like to pose for Frank. Phyl tells her, point blank, that their relationship will not survive it. This is extremely hurtful to Joyce but not so much that she dismisses the desire to do it. This struggle drives the play to its final scene.
Director Paul Frellick and this ensemble cast do a tremendous job of keeping these sometimes bitter debates light and comical. Without that effort, this would be a nearly unbearably sad play. Delightfully, it is not. There is much give-and-take and it is sometimes volatile, but Body Awareness ends up being a comedy, after all.
Body Awareness will run through May 22 at Deep Dish Theater Company. For details, see our theatre calendar.