Arts & Events
A peculiarity of contemporary drama is that we often start out disliking all the characters. In good modern drama, as the play progresses and we live their life and struggle with their struggles, our opinion changes.
BODY AWARENESS by Annie Baker at the Aurora takes us on that kind of theatrical journey.
The circumstances are particularly apt for Berkeley: two lesbians, one a psychology professor, the other a high school teacher, one Jewish (Joyce played by Jeri Lynn Cohen), one not (Phyllis played by Amy Resnick), live together in a college town with Joyce’s troubled 21-year-old son by a previous marriage. We join them the week of the symposium/festival, headed by the professor, for “Eating Disorder Week” positively renamed “Body Awareness.” Into their garden comes another man to sow more discord: a guest artist Frank (Howard Swain) who specializes in nude photographs of women of all ages.
The set by Kent Dorsey, with its push-button transformation and cozy apartment, is charming, and the conversion is fascinating to watch. But I do wish that when actors have to strike the set in low light that they would do it in character rather than switch to stage-hand mode; I would welcome the extra few minutes of running time so that they didn’t disrupt my imagination-bubble with that abrupt change and scurrying around to strike the props. Mr. Dorsey also designed the lighting which blends well with the environs he’s created; his choices help change tone and place and come from a talented professional.
Playwright Baker invokes the idea of “labeling theory”— that if you call a kid bad or retarded that he will behave as labeled. The son seems to have Asberger’s—lacks empathy and social skills, doesn’t like routines disturbed, preoccupied with one subject about which he talks incessantly, etc.—but he refuses to get tested, which is a continuous battle. He works at McDonald’s and reads the Oxford English Dictionary obsessively. So maybe his psychologist step-mom’s diagnosis is correct.
Patrick Russell as Jared the afflicted son of Joyce, rages and blathers and is mesmerizingly repellent in the role. Amy Resnick shines, particularly in the hyper-accurate portrayal of the role as moderator of the Symposium/Festival which serves as both ostinado for the play and portal to her character. Jeri Lynn Cohen is Joyce, the nurturer, maybe bisexual, fascinated with the work of the photographer, if not an outright attraction to him. Howard Swain hits the right tenor as Frank, a new-agey bachelor who gives women the chance to express themselves by disrobing for his camera.
Joyce’s attraction to Frank comes from his touchy-feely testosterone as well as the fact—which send Phyllis up the wall— that included in his collection on exhibition at this feminist festival are portraits of naked pre-pubescent females .
Joy Carlin’s direction keeps the tension restrained where, in another director’s hands, it could have become a soap-opera. Her direction is unseen, which is a high compliment.
Baker writes tightly—the play runs 90 minutes, no intermission—and she even takes the chance of introducing a brand new, serious conflict during the denouement that provides the resolution.
The conversations are real in a way that maybe you sort of have to live in Berkeley or Vermont to have witnessed. The screaming rages are disturbingly accurate. And at the end, all these “ironic” characters become real and vicarious friends—even if you don’t see yourself spending a lot of time with them.
BODY AWARENESS by Annie Baker
Directed by Joy Carlin**
Aurora Theatre Company 2081 Addison St. Berkeley,
Set and light design by Kent Dorsey***, properties by Mia Baxter and Seren Helday, costume design by Christine Dougherty, stage Management by Corrie Bennett*
WITH: Patrick Russell*, Amy Resnick*, Jeri Lynn Cohen*, Howard Swain*
Members: *Actors Equity Association, ** Stage Directors and Choreographers Society , ***United Scenic Artists
John A. McMullen II is a member of SDC, BATCC, and ATCA. EJ Dunne edits.