Woman Struggles to Empathize With Troubled Son in the Wilma's "Body Awareness"

The Wilma Theater gets 2012 off to a terrific start with its engaging production of Annie Baker’s intelligent comedy, Body Awareness.

The first of Baker’s three plays (all of which are set in the same small town in New England and were recently published in the must-read anthology The Vermont Plays), the story focuses on a small family in Shirley, Vt. The family is not your typical clan (if there is such a thing in modern America). Joyce (Mary Martello) is a divorced woman in her 50s who teaches cultural studies at the local high school and is struggling to maintain a relationship with her 21 year-old son, Jared (Dustin Ingram). Completing the household is Joyce’s partner/girlfriend/lover, Phyllis (Grace Gonglewski), a strong-willed professor in the Psychology Department at Shirley State College. Both Joyce and Phyllis suspect that Jared suffers from Aspergers syndrome, believing it explains what they see as Jared’s inability to empathize with other people (his deepest attachment is to a battery-powered toothbrush).

Into this home comes a visiting photographer named Frank (Christopher Coucill), whose photographs of nude women are being exhibited at the college as part of the school’s “Body Awareness Week,” a pet project of Phyllis’. Though normally open-minded, Phyllis views Frank’s photos as both misogynistic and exploitative of women; a view not shared by Joyce. The resulting dispute causes some friction in their relationship.

Often compared with legendary Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Baker’s plays are not busy affairs full of action and emotional fireworks. What she excels at is creating a very specific world for the play and then effortlessly drawing us into it. It is an ordinary, familiar place filled with characters who are distinct yet recognizable. It is this familiarity that allows us to empathize with the characters even as they struggle to empathize with one another. Jared may have Aspergers, but Phyllis and Joyce also suffer from a lack of understanding. It isn’t that they are close-minded; the problem is that the women mistake political-correctness for sympathy. They think with their heads, not hearts, and it is telling that their diagnosis of Jared’s condition comes from a book rather than a real sense of intimacy and understanding. Jared is not particularly forthcoming with the women, either. Instead, he reveals himself only to Frank in a spectacularly written scene in which the older man tutors his young pupil in the art of seduction.

Director Anne Kauffman immerses us in the lives of the four characters and the performances are compelling and assured. Ingram is a little too old and experienced for the role of Jared, but in the play’s gripping final minutes he successfully conveys the young man’s confusion and vulnerability. Coucill is wonderful as the earthy Frank, and Gonglewski is often very funny in her earnest depiction of the absurdities and eccentricities found in liberal academia. Best of all is Martello, who after 50 years on stage is enjoying her best season with roles that allow her to showcase the full range of her talents. Martello’s sensitive portrayal of the compassionate Joyce follows close on the heels of her magnificent performance in the Arden’s production of August: Osage County, in which she shared the stage with Gonglewski in an equally memorable tale of family dysfunction.