Theater J, known for its productions of plays that enhance social and political consciousness, is starting its 2012-2013 season out strong with the DC premiere of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, first seen at New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company in 2008. Much of the success of this production can be attributed to the cast under the direction of Eleanor Holdridge, but the strength of the script cannot be overlooked. Solid production values round out this commendable effort.
The play, at its core, focuses on the role of family structure, sexual identity and experience, and perceptions of one’s self in shaping how one sees the world and responds to events- both the mundane and the surprising. Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) is a professor at Shirley State College in Vermont who is focused on taking an intellectual, yet socially-informed approach to raising awareness of body issues among the student population during a campus-wide week of programming. She is in a committed relationship with Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), a high school teacher getting over past relationship experiences with men. Joyce has a 21 year old son, Jared (Adi Stein), who is more than a bit socially awkward though highly intelligent. When a male photographer (Frank Bonitatibus, played by Michael Kramer) comes to town to present at the college’s series of symposia on body issues and stays with Phyllis and her family, Joyce, Phyllis, and Jared make choices that will forever change not only family dynamics, but also their individual life paths.
It’s clear that Baker has a strong playwriting voice and a penchant for writing complex socially-conscious works filled with snappy, insightful, and interesting dialogue and social commentary. While she is quite successful at focusing her issue-based exploration on a singular story about a singular family unit, her script’s strength- multi-dimensional complexity-, might also be its weakness. The 3-member family deals with an array of issues that have received media attention in recent years: same-sex parenting, the challenge of overcoming bad sexual experiences, struggles with disability (the son may or may not have Asperger’s Syndrome), female perceptions of their own bodies, and the value of academic pursuits among others. No one family can deal with all of that, right?
Whether realistic or not (and that’s up for debate), it’s likely that if another (less adept) playwright tried to take on all of these issues in 90 minutes of dialogue, it would be an epic disaster. Baker’s play is not an epic disaster by any means (in fact it is from it- she weaves the issues together amazingly well), but I wonder if the play’s overall message would be even stronger and/or more resonant with audiences if the family she’s created didn’t deal with “everything but the kitchen sink.”
Theater J has assembled a very strong cast to take on this complex work. The cast is strongest when engaging together in the family dining room scenes, but all 4 cast members have their standout moments. Recent college graduate Adi Stein has the most interesting (and perhaps most difficult) character to portray. He very carefully balances his portrayal of Jared’s awkwardness/differentness with his intellectual curiosity. Playing someone who might have Asperger’s Syndrome could lead some actors to overplay the character to the point of being cartoonish, but Stein avoids this trap like a consummate professional. He’s delightfully human, quirky, compelling, charming, engaging, and honest. I look forward to seeing his career develop. He has a strong future ahead of him.
Lynskey, as Phyllis, is both neurotic yet intellectually grounded. Her spot-on portrayal of a nerdy academic who takes work very, very seriously is noteworthy. With Lynskey it is easy to see how Phyllis’ education impacts not only her career choice and views on macro social issues, but how she views and deals with the more personal issues her family faces. Wise, as Joyce, makes very appropriate acting choices when engaging with her often-frustrating son. She makes clear that she understands that her character is deeply influenced by past experiences, but is desperate to overcome them. Her portrayal is both heartbreaking and natural. Kramer, as outsider/instigator Frank, is perfectly acerbic. He makes it clear that Frank’s not easily swayed by the situations that swirl around him- an essential acting choice for this play.