Silence Speaking Volumes: Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds

By Taylor Steinbeck

When Bess Wohl’s six characters arrive at the silent retreat in Small Mouth Sounds, they each are seeking relief from the “noisiness” of their lives. Looking for answers, they turn to the retreat’s offstage, omniscient-ish guru, but he guides them to look within themselves for answers. “Your brilliance, your juiciness, your spiciness, your grudges, your resentment, your enlightenment. It is all right here,” the Teacher says. “All you have to do is. Listen.” The silence of the retreat enables each of its participants to hear everything at an amplified volume: suffering, joy, frustration, desire. Small Mouth Sounds asks our noise-saturated society, what can we learn from silence?

Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) calms Alicia (Brenna Palughi)
with a breathing exercise. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
In writing Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl’s use of silence was an experiment in mindful art-making. With a script almost entirely made up of stage directions, this play challenged her to dig deeper than dialogue to get to the core of her characters, and take on many of the same challenges that confronted her retreaters. “I thought, ‘O.K., can I just teach myself as a writer to stay, listen, be patient, not necessarily know where I’m going when I start out and just sort of stay with my feelings? That’s a huge part of what the characters are trying to learn in the play, but it was also what I was trying to teach myself.”

Without dialogue for most of its 100 minutes, Small Mouth Sounds is not just an exercise in mindfulness for the characters onstage, but also for those sitting in an unusually quiet Strand Theater. “In a world that constantly barrages us with everything from deafening booms to incessant beeps and pings, hearing nothing at all for long stretches of time feels quite radical,” says The Mercury News theater critic, Karen D’Souza. “[Small Mouth Sounds] exploits the subversive power of stillness in our age of manic multitasking.”

In Small Mouth Sounds, silence is prescribed to the retreaters as an antidote to their deafening stresses. If they can learn how to tune out the noise of whatever afflicts them, they will find peace. “This theatrical encounter with quiet does seem to heal these characters and maybe in a small way, even the audience,” notes D’Souza. “After a 100-minute detox from the din and clamor of reality, time often spent musing the absurdity of existence, we emerge back into the world, no longer all that anxious to power up our devices, feeling happily lost in our thoughts instead.” When it comes to listening, it is in silence that we hear most.

Small Mouth Sounds runs until December 10 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about the benefits of silence? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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