Lesbian couple the focus of Wilma Theater comedy

The Wilma Theater will present “Body Awareness,” an early work by award-winning playwright Annie Baker, Jan. 4-Feb. 5.

At 30, Baker has won a number of awards for her off-Braodway plays including “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Aliens.”

Like Baker’s later and better-known works, “Body Awareness” finds humor in the lives of richly drawn and captivating characters, this time offering a glimpse into the quirky domestic life of a contemporary yet unpredictable family centered around a lesbian couple during one rather transformative week.

Set in Shirley State College, Vt., where it’s Body Awareness Week, college professor Phyllis leads an unconventional life with girlfriend Joyce and her son Jared.

Two award-winning, Philadelphia-based actors, Grace Gonglewski and Mary Martello, both longtime fixtures in the Philadelphia theater community, portray Phyllis and Joyce, respectively, in “Body Awareness.”

Martello said she was familiar with Baker’s plays, particularly this play, going into the production.

“I had done the reading that Wilma did about four years ago and I really liked the play,” Martello said. “I thought it was extremely well written. It’s such a beautiful slice of life. All the characters go through a struggle and a change. They all come to some kind of realization about themselves, the people and the family. I thought it was beautiful. When I heard they were doing it, I made sure that I got to come in for an audition.”

Both Martello and Gonglewski said that Joyce and Phyllis’ relationship, up until the point that the audience is introduced to them, has been solid.

“They’ve been partners for three years and I think when we see them in this play, their relationship is very domestic,” Martello said. “Joyce has a son and it has been a positive experience and relationship for both of them and the son. But I think they’re at the point after three years where they are ready to go through some kind of shift. But it’s a very warm, respectful and loving relationship.”

“I don’t think Phyllis is as enlightened as we would wish for her to be,” Gonglewski said. “I think that she is unknowingly controlling. There are reasons for that and it’s a nice journey for her in the play for her to be able to address some of that and move away from it. There’s some healing that happens there. I find her funny. I find her sardonic. She’s sort of poking fun at me in a way. So it’s very tongue-in-cheek and that is wickedly delicious to do.”

The source of the conflict between Phyllis and Joyce comes in the form of visiting artist Frank Bonitatibus, who brings his photographs of nude women into their home, stirring up conflicting feelings over sexuality and identity.

“He tells it like it is,” Gonglewski said about the character of Frank. “His character is something that’s insensitive, but unwittingly so. But it’s very powerful.”

“For one thing, he’s staying in the house,” Martello explained about why Frank is the catalyst for confrontation. “Any time a stranger comes and stays in your house, that creates heightened awareness. But it’s his job, his art, as a photographer: He takes photographs of naked women of all ages. He goes around the country displaying this art and Joyce and Phyllis have two very different reactions to it. And so that creates a lot of conflict. Joyce finds them beautiful, strong and a statement of freedom and self-recognition. Phyllis is the opposite. She’s shocked that the two of them who have agreed on so many things over the years have two completely different responses.”

Yet, Martello and Gonglewski said the humor in “Body Awareness” comes from a healthy and heartwarming place and isn’t necessarily a harbinger of doom for the couple.

“It’s poking fun of sorts of the PC intellectual,” Gonglewski said. “It’s sophisticated and subtle. I think it’s a unique play in terms of poking fun at these kinds of characters. [Director] Anne Kauffman is doing an amazing job of rounding them out and not putting stereotypes on stage. I think that’s a little bit of a relief and pretty sophisticated too. I have played lesbian characters before but I don’t think I’ve portrayed one like this: parents and non-parents partnered and raising a difficult child. I don’t think that paradigm is explored in depth on stage often.”

“I think it’s the recognition of ourselves,” Martello added. “I think the source of the humor is that these people are struggling to figure out who they are, what life is about and how to get along with each other. I think that is a great source of humor. Sometimes painful things are wonderful sources of humor. I think it’s the relationship between them. They have a guest staying at the house and that is kind of a catalyst to bring things to the surface. So I would say that the humor comes right out of the relationship.”

Martello said it isn’t often audiences get to see openly LGBT stage characters who aren’t in crisis, and she is happy to be part of portraying a healthy and stable lesbian couple — even when they are discovering and working through their differences.

“I think people will be quite moved, and maybe put off a bit, by the absolute reality and honesty of these people and this situation,” she said. “I think it’s just beautiful. Normally, characters like these are seen in a sitcom situation or made fun of or they are at some point of crisis about their gay identity. But these people aren’t struggling with that. They’re just struggling with a normal domestic relationship and how they make that work. And that’s why I love that.”

The Wilma Theater presents “Body Awareness” Jan. 4-Feb. 5, 265 S. Broad St. Playwright Annie Baker will host an onstage conversation on Jan. 8. For more information or tickets, visit www.wilmatheater.org or call 215-546-7824.