In Bess Wohl’s enthralling new play Small Mouth Sounds — now at Ars Nova — silences speak louder than words. Or rather, without words, the little noises speech usually drowns out assume an outsize importance, reminding us how much we communicate without saying a thing.
A group of troubled spiritual seekers congregates at a meditation retreat in the woods. Each is coping with private pain: grief, illness, heartbreak. But this is a silent retreat, so we encounter these sufferers largely through gesture, facial expression, and physical presence as they negotiate predicaments mundane (like schedules and roommate assignments) and giant (like rage and lust) without words.
Many of these scenes are very funny. Director Rachel Chavkin’s intimate staging puts spectators so close to the action it’s like we’re along on the retreat: listening to the swami’s scatterbrained sermons, sneaking a forbidden snack, contemplating skinny-dipping. (Andrew Schneider’s lush projection design helps, too.) The superlative ensemble makes us feel we know these people long before they say anything. And when the retreat ends, the return to speech feels like a corruption of their hard-won rapport.
Most of human experience is measured in small mouth sounds: breathing, chewing, moaning, sobbing, laughing. Revealing all the inarticulate longings and unexpressed feelings words conceal, Small Mouth Sounds returns us to the world with more attentive ears.