When you break it down to its most basic elements, narrative theater consists of actors saying words. Almost everything else — from venue, to content, to the type and style of the words — is up for grabs. What Bess Wohl’s 2015 play “Small Mouth Sounds” asks, though, is whether those words are even necessary. And if they’re not needed on the stage, then are they needed in our daily life?
“Small Mouth Sounds” takes place over five days at a silent spiritual retreat, where the participants are asked to only speak at specific times and places. Capital T Theatre’s new production of the play, running through June 16 at Hyde Park Theatre, creates the immersive feeling of that retreat from before the show even begins, with a simple but evocative set of wooden earth tones designed by Zac Thomas and Mark Pickell, the latter of whom also directed the production.
The meditative pre-show music also helps set the scene, and indeed Lowell Bartholomee’s sound design may be the standout aspect of this production. A steady background bed of atmospheric sound, ranging from a rainstorm to a quiet night, provides an emotional and tonal setting that allows the cast’s silent interactions to take place without the tension and anxiety that a totally silent stage might create.
Though “Small Mouth Sounds” may be about wordlessness, it’s not about total silence, and in this it attenuates its audience to notice the importance of noises other than words, ranging from Bartholomee’s designed sound to the exhalations of actors and the noises made by the objects with which they interact. It is, in many ways, an experiment in taking the somewhat avant-garde idea of a wordless play and transposing it to a narrative drama/comedy.
As might be expected, such an experiment relies on its cast as much as it does its production/design crew, and Pickell has put together a group of Austin all-stars to pull this off. The six cast members (plus the pre-recorded voice of Katherine Catmull as the retreat’s instructor) are each adept at pulling off beats of rich comedy as well as deep emotion without uttering a word. Wohl’s script does cheat somewhat — every character has at least a few lines of dialogue, and some have entire speeches — but the majority of the characters tell their stories clearly without needing to say a word. Each of the six members of the retreat is searching for something, whether it is to let go of a burden or find some kind of inner solace, and over the course of the five days they each find something within the silence to bring back to their daily lives.
Ironically, however, the standout moment of the production comes in the form of a monologue, delivered by Zac Thomas as Ned. In the form of a long, rambling question posed during a Q&A session, Ned reveals his life story, a darkly hilarious tale of a man brought to the lowest possible point who then goes even lower. Equally tragic and comedic, Thomas provides a deeply textured nuance to the monologue that is matched by his pained, likable, heartfelt performance throughout the rest of the production.
This is not, though, to diminish the performances of the rest of the cast — Rebecca Robinson, Ellie McBride, Jason Phelps, Delante Keys and Therese Baldwin. Because there is so little dialogue, and because Pickell’s production choices are so deliberately straightforward, Capital T’s “Small Mouth Sounds” relies wholly on the strengths of that cast to carry the story, momentum and emotion of the play.
In this, they succeed marvelously, creating a refreshingly unique, satisfying and immersive piece of theater that is well worth seeing.
“SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with additional 8 p.m. show June 11, through June 16
Where: Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd St.