Annie Baker's "Body Awareness' at the Wilma (3rd review)

Quest for empathy, or: Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Gonglewski, Ingram, Martello: Constructive disruption. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Gonglewski, Ingram, Martello: Constructive disruption. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)

"Asperger's," reflects a character in Body Awareness— "that's like lack of empathy, right?"

Empathy— the ability to see things from someone else's perspective— is a critical ingredient in theater, as in life. If a play can't provide at least one character for an audience to empathize with, that play is usually in trouble.

Yet in Body Awareness, Annie Baker takes the opposite tack: She offers four original characters who, for very different reasons, initially repelled me— yet she had me empathizing with all of them by the time this remarkable little gem of a drama was finished.

Body Awareness plunks us into a snowbound Vermont household whose three inhabitants seem as trapped by their relationships as they are by the frost and darkness outside. Jared (Dustin Ingram) is a brilliant but socially immature 21-year-old seemingly burdened with (a) Asperger's syndrome and (b) the absence of an adult male role model. Consequently he is clueless about finding love or friends or a job, not to mention ameliorating his condition.

His mother, Joyce (Mary Martello), is weighted down both by Jared's outbursts (e.g., "I'm not angry— I'm surrounded by imbeciles") and her controlling lesbian partner, Phyllis (Grace Gonglewski), a college psychology professor who (like Jared) isn't shy about reminding Joyce of her intellectual shortcomings. Phyllis, for her part, is plagued by her inability to shape the world, not to mention her immediate housemates, to suit her politically correct vision of how people should think and behave.

Beyond eating disorders

The action takes place during the five days of "Body Awareness Week," a college program Phyllis has created to urge her students to venture beyond conventional notions about eating disorders, only to recoil in terror when they venture in directions she'd rather avoid. Worse, from her perspective, Body Awareness Week brings to her campus and indeed to her home a "visiting artist" whose very presence challenges everything Phyllis detests.

Frank Bonitatibus (Christopher Coucill) is a charismatic photographer, a free spirit who's comfortable with himself-- in sharp contrast to his hosts. Where Phyllis is resolutely rational, Frank is spiritual to a fault (he persuades his hosts to light shabbos candles at dinner, even though it's Tuesday and none of them is Jewish).

Where Phyllis yearns to liberate women from the yoke of male chauvinism, Frank specializes in taking nude photos of ordinary women, who seem only too eager to volunteer as his subjects. When Phyllis accuses Frank of using his art for perverted purposes, Frank shrugs, "What if Michelangelo masturbated to the statue of David? Does that make him a bad sculptor?"

Like Israelis and Palestinians

You and I might assume that such a household can be saved only by separating its four inhabitants from each other— much as, say, you might insists that Israelis must be separated from Palestinians, or Irish Catholics from Irish Protestants, or Muslims from Hindus. Yet at this point a funny thing happens.

Each of these characters, in the process of disrupting the cherished assumptions of the other three, in some way also acts as a positive catalyst on the other three, leaving us to wonder whether this seemingly dysfunctional household is in fact proceeding in a very healthy manner— that is, openly confronting each other with their issues and dealing with them on a continuing basis. In the characters' daily routines of eating, sleeping, rising and going off to work, little seems to change on the surface; yet in fact momentous changes are taking place during these five days alone.

In a recent BSR column, I suggested that the only thing worse than living among people who hate you is living across the border from people who hate you. (See "The folly of a Middle East two-state solution," September). Baker takes this argument one step further: Living among people whose values differ from yours, she implies, actually produces positive benefits, enabling us to grow and flourish in directions that wouldn't occur to us if, say, artists mingled only with other artists, lesbians dealt only with lesbians and people with Asperger's syndrome related only to other Aspies.

Body language

Baker resists the theatrical histrionics you might expect in a play about relationships; she also resists the temptation to wrap up all the household conflicts in a neat package before the final curtain. But as befits its title, Body Awareness rises or falls to a large extent on body language, whether it's the "spooning" of Joyce and Phyllis in their bed, or Phyllis's girlish ambivalence about removing her clothes in front of Frank, or Jared's stiff resistance to the small strokings and kind words that enable most of us to get through the day.

In this regard the Wilma's production is blessed with a remarkable cast under the direction of Anne Kauffman (as Jared, Dustin Ingram had me convinced that he's autistic in real life), as well as a remarkable set by Mimi Lien that vividly conveys the sense of a claustrophobic household— or world— whose inhabitants can't, and shouldn't, avoid each other.

Comedy or drama?

Robert Zaller and Jackie Atkins, who also reviewed Body Awareness for BSR, saw the play on opening night— when audiences tend to laugh nervously at everything— and concluded that Body Awareness is a comedy. Having seen it on the second night with a more subdued audience, I found Body Awareness a deceptively serious and substantive drama that blessedly refuses to take itself too seriously.

Of course it's possible that Body Awareness elicited reactions from me that may not occur to anyone else, including the playwright. But that's the purpose of art— to evoke multiple interpretations. To my mind, Body Awareness is a play to ponder, to revisit and to discuss with friends and even enemies. Maybe especially enemies. Ultimately that's what good theater is all about.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Jackie Atkins, click here.
To read a response, click here.

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