“Body Awareness” at the Wilma Is More Than Just Masturbation Jokes

It’s Body Awareness Week at Shirley State College. Organized and lead by psychology professor Phyllis (Grace Gonglewski), it is to be a week of discussion, growth, and empowerment. At least that’s what Phyllis had hoped for. However, when a visiting—white, male—photographer Frank Bonitatibus (Christopher Coucill) displays his female nudes in the student union center as part of the week’s festivities, Phyllis’ is horrified. Not only is this man exploiting women (and some children) in her eyes, but also it appears that her girlfriend Joyce (Mary Martello) and Joyce’s son Jared (Dustin Ingram) seem to take a liking to him. And may ultimately tear her family a part.

In Wilma’s skillful production of Annie Baker’s biting comedy Body Awareness, everything is not quite what it seems. At first, the script seems too jokey, the direction too simplistic, the characters too stock. But as the play unfolds, you begin to realize just how wrong your first impressions were. The jokes highlight each character’s insecurities with his or her own self-image or self-identity. The direction, by Anne Kauffman, makes the audience feel like we’re looking through someone’s windows. The everyday normalities—the preparing of dinner, the moisturizing before going to bed, the irritated sighs—makes Mimi Lien’s exquisite set feel like a lived in space. And is a perfect demonstration of the characters’ relationships. The characters are not just broad stroke riffs on standard caricatures (the mightier-than-though liberal lesbian, the bohemian-free-love male artist, the put-upon mother, the emotionally, psychologically stunted Gen Y-er), but greater realized individuals dealing with real insecurities.

The heart of the play lies in Martello’s Joyce. Caring not just for her son—who may or may not (but probably does) have Asperger’s—but also for her girlfriend, who both belittle Joyce, you find yourself becoming protective. The writing of the character provides the basis, but it is Martello’s warmth and comfortableness that brings Joyce to life. Ingram’s Jared (which is like an amalgamation of Freaks and Geeks’ Bill and Napoleon Dynamite) adds perfect tension to his every scene. You’re never sure what is going to say or do.

Gonglewski and Coucill are given more difficult tasks of taking on more generic characters. Though fewer moments of discovery, Gonglewski gives a strong performance—specifically during the daily presentations. Her dry, droll, slightly frantic Phyllis is perfectly foiled by the laid-back maleness of Frank. Perhaps by Baker’s choice, Frank feels the least realized of the four characters. Coucill does what he can with this character (who in a lesser production would surely be pony-tailed and wear bandanas), and gets some big laughs, but we never really know him—but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps he is merely the family’s external influence.

On the surface, Body Awareness is a simple comedy with crude jokes about masturbation and oral sex. But look deeper and you’ll find a poignant examination of people continuing to struggle with self-acceptance. To “be seen, without being judged.”