Preview of Small Mouth Sounds, Long Wharf Theatre
Opening this week at the Long Wharf Theatre is the first stop of the six-city touring production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which debuted in New York at Ars Nova, 2015, and then ran Off-Broadway at the Pershing Signature Center, where it was a New York Critics’ Pick of 2016. Though intrigued by the show, I didn’t get to either of those productions. So this is a welcome opener for the Long Wharf’s 2017-18 season. The play is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who has directed the show from the beginning, but features an all-new cast. Chavkin was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
In the cast at Long Wharf is Brenna Palughi who I remember from her last year at the Yale School of Drama. In the 2009-10 season, she was featured in a show at the Yale Cabaret that was completely wordless and mostly in slow motion. Palughi’s silent scream in response to a catastrophic event has stayed with me for over seven years. It’s fitting, since the show that brings Palughi back to New Haven requires a lot of silent acting. Small Mouth Sounds concerns seven people—including a couple—who undertake a silent retreat in the woods.
Since her time at the School of Drama, Palughi has had a Broadway debut, as an understudy in A Time to Kill, and has acted Off-Broadway and on TV. She loves doing new plays and sees Small Mouth Sounds as “walking that thin line between comedy and tragedy.” The characters, she said, “really have needs and are willing to grasp at anything” in their effort to change their lives. Alicia, Palughi’s character, “is really sick of herself and how she’s living.”
“The more you invest in the characters’ lives, the more you get from the play,” Palughi said. The playwright’s presence at rehearsals gave the cast “a lot to work with,” as Wohl “dropped great tidbits” for the actors to consider, “opening whole new trains of thought.” Alicia, who Palughi characterized as “not great at being quiet,” is a part that requires, she found, a particular kind of empathy. A key realization for Palughi, in getting into character, is that Alicia “starts where a lot of people end up.” Which means that the back story of Alicia has to be understood by the actor and conveyed with almost no exposition. Alicia “begins in a shitty place” and the play’s situation offers her, perhaps, the means to a better place.
Palughi, who has taught movement classes, said that the play, in its lack of dialogue, involves the kind of physical theater she loves. “The body becomes a tool for storytelling, but in a realistic, naturalistic way. There’s no metaphorical movement, but there is a lot of humor and meaning in the body language of the characters.”
We all might benefit from more silence in our highly articulate world. Wohl’s play lets us see how complicated confronting one another and ourselves can be without words to help or to get in the way. At the retreat, where they are addressed by an unseen teacher, the characters are “supposed to exist with but not interact with each other,” Palughi said, which might be easier said—or not said—than done.
Small Mouth Sounds opens August 30 and runs to September 24.
For my review at the New Haven Independent, go here.
For a podcast on the play featuring myself and Lucy Gellman and Brian Slattery, go here.
Long Wharf Theatre