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The Body Electric 

A winning, understated production tackles the male gaze, Asperger’s Syndrome and what could be offensive in photography

click to enlarge Monica Wolfkill, left, and Whitney Morton Woodcock in Body Awareness.

Monica Wolfkill, left, and Whitney Morton Woodcock in Body Awareness.

The Something Something Theatre Company (I don't understand the allure of the name either) has done itself proud with their production of Body Awareness, a nifty little play by Annie Baker. The company is only a couple of years old, and as often happens, things can get off to a bumpy start. This is by far the best piece I've seen and I hope it portends the shape of things come.

Baker's play is a brief but substantive gem. A young playwright, she has already won a Pulitzer Prize for her play Flick. Here she has created interesting characters and has placed them in interesting circumstances, and the story unfolds in credible and convincing ways (which is surprisingly not the case with so many newer plays that have been offered audiences of late).

Baker shows us an unconventional home inhabited by Joyce (Monica Wolfkill), her partner of three years, Phyllis (Whitney Morton Woodcock) and Joyce's son Jared (Lorenzo Montijo). The first scene introduces us to Joyce and Jared, an odd-seeming sort of young man, arguing about whether or not Jared is autistic, or, more particularly, if he has Asperger's Syndrome, a type of autism in which an individual can be high functioning and is often exceedingly bright, but has trouble connecting socially. Jared insists he doesn't have the condition and Joyce tries to convince him that although he may not, it might be wise to be evaluated. Jared's been reading a book about the disorder and forcefully argues that he doesn't have Asperger's, citing many of the book's distinctions and categories that he definitely doesn't fall into. His mother doesn't push, assuring him she doesn't think he is a "retard," as Jared charges her with believing. He's clearly aware that he may not be like others, but hates that he might have an identity foisted on him. The focus on Jared and his search for a sense of self is a thread running throughout the fabric of Baker's play, which is skillfully woven with other related themes.

One of these themes is the objectification of women, the size and shape of their bodies, especially by the "male gaze." Phyllis is a professor of psychology at Shirley State College, a feminist through and through, who has put together a weeklong symposium called Body Awareness Week, with a variety of related activities. Baker uses the convention of Phyllis addressing her symposium audience each day, with scenes of family interactions, the real meat of the play, happening after each day's brief opening address. There are in these addresses small but significant ideas that are a part of the play's intent.

A photographer named Frank (Roger Owen) has been invited to exhibit his work for the event and is staying with the family. When Phyllis learns that he photographs nude females of all ages, she is angered at what she is sure is exploitative. His presence provokes the pre-existing tension between the members of the family and is a catalyst for the events that more fully reveal their troubles.

Baker shows restraint and patience when writing these characters, and that's one of the things that makes us like them enough to be engaged by their story. And we are engaged, in a quiet, reflective way. There's a bit of drama that hooks us and moves the characters in new directions, but it's far from a big, melodramatic conflict. But because of the storytelling demands, we do need to feel tension tightening as the story plays out, and perhaps there might be more of that tightening demonstrated in this production.

Something Something's (OK—that's the last time I'm writing that) production, directed by Joan O'Dwyer, is a smart and earnest effort that wins us over from the start. That's largely due to the wonderful performance of Montijo as Jared. He is odd, he is difficult, he's argumentative and he walks around with a battery-driven toothbrush as a sort of security blanket. But Montijo embraces what Baker has created in the character, which is a real sense of vulnerability. We feel for him.

Wolfkill gives us a sympathetic Joyce, stretched between her son and her partner and herself. Morton can be strident and out-spoken and uber-P.C. Her character isn't always likeable, which is fine, but I never really felt that the women demonstrated a deep attraction and commitment. Owen gives us a low-key Frank, an artist sensitive enough to feel the tension in the family. He offers an honest dose of the world beyond the college town not with bravado, but simply with his rather fascinating persona. He's not defensive when Phyllis attacks his motives for photographing little girls; he merely offers his sensibilities as an artist. Owen delivers this well.

There are some inadequacies (diction, please) and some deeper character work could be mined, but none is big enough to dissuade us from sharing this family's story. Scott Berg's set is attractive and works quite well, as does Mike Saxon's lighting and sound.

There were but three people in the audience when I saw the show, which was performed in the Cabaret above the Temple of Music and Art, and there was a conflict with ATC's annual gala that forced the theater to change what would be its regular Saturday night performance to the afternoon. Unfortunately, distracting noises, including loud music, managed to plague the performance.

I don't know if that's the reason there was a tiny audience. But it's a good show. It deserves an audience.

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