March 23, 2015

A half-dozen troubled souls find that enforced silence doesn’t necessarily bring inner peace in “Small Mouth Sounds,” an enchanting new play by Bess Wohl presented at Ars Nova. As funny as it is, uh, quietly moving, Ms. Wohl’s play is also a model of ingenuity. During its 100-minute running time and with one exception — the (unseen) guru running this spiritual retreat — the characters hardly ever speak. Both the humor and the pathos spring mostly from wordless interaction, which is testimony to Ms. Wohl’s intrepid writing, to the superb acting and to the precise work of the production’s director, Rachel Chavkin. The setting for this weeklong silent soul-spa is rural, as can be gleaned from the murmurs of rustling woods and wildlife (courtesy of Stowe Nelson’s nifty sound design) and the panels depicting slices of the bucolic surroundings (more expert work from the inventive set designer Laura Jellinek). Rain is thundering down as the participants assemble for their orientation talk. A disembodied voice, soothing and with a tinge of an accent (Indian?), welcomes the participants and sets the ground rules, after beginning with an allegory about a pair of frogs that inspires befuddlement in most of the guests. Clothing is optional at the nearby lake, although all “nudity must be in the spirit of respect, community and adventure.” Cellphones are verboten “except in the parking lot, inside your vehicle, with all doors and windows closed.” No refunds, no exceptions. And, of course, no talking.