Walking into 7 Stages Backstage to see Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre’s Body Awareness, the audience becomes immersed in a cozy, Vermont home. The home belongs to Phyllis (Daryl Lisa Fazio) and Joyce (Kathleen Wattis) who have been in a relationship for three years. The small theater does not offer much space, but Scenic Designer Nadia Morgan managed to craft a set so detailed and functional that it rivals the sets that Atlanta’s larger theaters produce. Her stationary set includes a comfortable bedroom, a seemingly full-functional kitchen and a dining area that serves as the place for most scenes.
Also living with them is Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared (Barrett Doyle) whose choice of studying etymology and reading the dictionary instead of social contact is a constant source of worry for his mother. The three are hosting guest artist Frank (Jayson Smith) for the duration of Shirley College’s Body Awareness Week, which Phyllis, a professor at the college, is helping to organize. All is well until Phyllis realizes that Frank’s photography is of nude women. And so, Joyce, who is intrigued by Frank’s photographs, and Phyllis, who is outraged over what she feels is an objectification of women, become at odds over Frank.
The play begins with an amusing promo video for Body Awareness Week, after which Phyllis addresses a college crowd during the first day of the event. Sharply written by playwright Annie Baker, this speech falls flat in its efforts to draw the audience into the scenes that are to come due to Fazio’s delivery. Phyllis is nervous speaking in front of large crowds, but the scene would have been more impactful had she appeared to be looking towards the audience and not the floor or the ceiling. She does a similar speech for each of the five days the play covers and each feels too disconnected from the audience in such an intimate space.
Joyce and Phyllis believe that Jared’s social awkwardness may be due to Asperger’s syndrome. After reading books on the subject, Jared refutes the notion that he has Asperger’s because he can be emphatic towards people. In return, the cast succeeds in their efforts to cause the audience to become emphatic with them. Director Justin Anderson’s greatest accomplishment with this production is his selection of a cast whose trust and chemistry with one another allows them to fully explore the layers that Baker has molded for each character.
Surprisingly, it’s Fazio that elicits the most empathy for her character. Phyllis’ jealously of Joyce’s friendship with Frank and her unwillingness to view his photographs as anything but distasteful are, at times, off-putting and annoying. However, Fazio displays the right amount of urgency, concern and love that make it clear that Phyllis only wants the best for her family as she struggles to find the right way to express it.
The strongest of the quartet is Smith who takes a character that could come off as the sleaze Phyllis makes him out to be and instead makes him relatable and quite charming. Doyle and Wattis excel in their scenes with Smith. Playing off his coarse (but understanding) personality, they are able to express the uncertainties their characters face.
Although bitingly funny, Body Awareness is not light-hearted; its humor packs a powerful punch as each laugh spurs thought. While far from life-changing, it challenges the audience to examine their own views on relationships and (perhaps most importantly) family. Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre’s Body Awareness runs through August 28. For tickets and more information please visit http://www.pnotheatre.org/.
– A. Wesley