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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
The characters, situations and social milieus are different for each, but they are similarly structured: One act with the key dramatic elements revolve around a small group of ordinary but diverting characters who change their understanding of themselves and each other. The plots move forward through a series of blackouts but without dividing what happens between those blackouts into conventional scene numbers. What disarms about all is the way the characters and their unpretentiously honest dialogue grab a hold of us, much like Horton Foote's Harrison, Texas plays.
Body Awarenes, the first of Baker's Shirley plays is being given a lovely production at the Chester Theatre. Thanks to Knud Adam's well-conceived and executed staging and a winning ensemble, the play which won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and the Outer Critic Circle's John Gassner Award when it premiered at New York's Atlantic Theater in 2009, is still tremendously affecting and also extremely funny.
The occasion that propels the dramatic flow is a Body Awareness Week organized by Phyllis (Caitlin McDonough-Thayer), a. middle aged Lesbian teacher at Shirley State College. The events include lectures and exhibitions that Phyllis hopes, per the above remark to the faculty, will stimulate lots of discussion but no tension.
But tension does erupt, and in the home Phyllis shares with Joyce (Jennifer Rohn) and Joyce's 21-year-old son Jared (David Rosenblatt) as a result of their hosting guest photographer Frank (Bruce McKenzie) for the week. You see Frank's specialty is female nudes and which affects both women in different and disturbing ways and by the time Friday rolls around the women as well as Jared have been compelled to take a closer look at themselves and their nontraditional little family.
What turns the house guest into a catalyst for tension is that for Phyllis's feminism Frank's specialty is a turnoff. To her he's strictly a sexual exploiter. Her antagonism is exacerbated by Joyce's much warmer attitude which actually has her receptive to posing for him. That's not to say that Frank does anything especially aggressive to come between the women. He is, in fact gently ingratiating, even suggesting that they precede their first meal together with a Jewish Shabbas ritual. This does however,heighten Phyllis's sense of outsiderdom since both Frank and Joyce know the prayers (she's half Jewish, and he was married to a Jewish woman).
As for Jared, who is an exceptionally bright young man but obviously not living up to his potential (both Joyce and Phyllis think he has Asperger's, a form of autism), Frank briefly and hilariously acts as a surrogate father advising Jared on how to lose his unwanted virginity.
The actors all bring their characters to vivid and well defined life. McDonough-Thayer and Rohn convincingly evoke the conflicted feelings that suddenly threaten their togetherness. McKenzie manages to convey nonthreatening likeability and combine an air of spirituality with just a touch of creepiness.
But while this is essentially the women's play, it's Rosenblatt's Jared who just about steals the show capturing every nuance of this young man's quirky intelligence. He looks exactly right for the part and uses this emotionally wounded young and ably employs humor to makes us see the wounded heart beat of this funny, etymology obsessed personality.
Travis A. George's simple white and beige trimmed set nicely creates spaces for the interaction in the kitchen, dining room and bedroom of Phyllis and Joyce's home. One of those white walls also serves as a chalkboard on which to note each passing day and as the lecture hall where Phyllis introduces the various events.
As Body Awareness shares certain structural elements as well as the fictional town setting, with Circle Mirror Transformation and The Aliens , so is the youngest character in those plays the most intriguing. Maybe Chester's artistic director Byam Stevens, will give his audiences a chance to meet those characters in future seasons.