The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Body Awareness includes (from left) Howard Swain, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick and Patrick Russell. Below: Cohen and Swain prepare for a body awareness photo session. Photos by David Allen
Drama in the small college town of Shirley, Vermont, is much like it is anywhere: small, intimate and, for the people involved, earth shattering.
Playwright Annie Baker, one of the theater world’s most acclaimed and buzzed-about writers, has a particular skill in writing about the lives of ordinary people. She’s acutely aware of the comic absurdity and the fissures of sadness and anger that clash continually and cause tremors, both minor and majorly damaging.
Baker is a humane and very funny writer, and the Bay Area is finally getting a taste of her talent in the Aurora Theatre Company’s utterly delightful production of her Body Awareness. In true Aurora form, the production gives us a meaty play and performances by a quartet of Bay Area actors that defy you to find a false moment in this up-close and intimate space.
Baker is taking a sideways look at the essential and uniquely individual nature of family. She gives us a non-traditional family and quickly throws it into crisis.
Jeri Lynn Cohen is Joyce, a high school teacher and mom in her mid-50s whose son, Jared (Patrick Russell) is likely dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, but he’s never been diagnosed, let alone spent time with a psychologist. Joyce was married to Jared’s dad but has taken a different turn in middle age. She’s now partnered with Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a psychology professor at the local university.
Phyllis is one of the organizers of the university’s Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorder Awareness Week), and to “celebrate” and create dialogue and otherwise create all that activity that empowered academics so cherish, she and her organizing crew have invited an array of guests artists, from a Palestinian dance troupe to a puppet theater, to discuss all aspects of body awareness.
One of those visitors – not one of Phyllis’ choosing – is Frank (Howard Swain), a photographer who shoots nude women of all ages. Because it’s a small university, guests are housed at professors’ homes, and Frank is staying with Phyllis, Joyce and Jared. It’s the perfect storm as Jared fights his parental figures and Frank appears as an inspired artist to Joyce and a loathsome misogynist pervert to Phyllis.
Director Joy Carlin gets such delicious performances from her actors, it’s hard to know where to begin in praising them. Resnick’s ability to play reality and comedy at the same time makes her the perfect actor for a Baker script. Phyllis could so easily come off as a ridiculously pompous academic, but Resnick keeps her grounded and her intellectual foibles within the realm of (very funny) reality.
Cohen is a superb foil for Resnick. She’s part pragmatist and part yearning earth mother. When she gets it in her head that she’d like Frank to photograph her, Phyllis is so repelled she threatens to end the relationship. Cohen’s reaction as Joyce is a wonder – surprise, hurt, defiance and a yearning to make everything right without sacrificing what she thinks is right for her.
It’s wonderfully complex, all of it, and these actors handle it with ease. Swain is downright goofy in a role that could easily be crass and repellent. His Frank has warmth occasionally cooled by ego but also genuine concern fueled by compassion.
And Russell, an ACT Master of Fine Arts graduate, is astonishing as he conveys Jared’s tortured interior life. He’s a young man smart enough to know not everything is right with him but afraid to do anything with that knowledge. His flashes of anger toward his mother are jolting but understandable. This is a sensitive, highly PC household, so flashes of unrestrained anger have a certain welcome appeal.
Carlin deftly keeps the action lively for the play’s 90 minutes and never lets the rhythms fall into predictable, sitcom beats. She keeps the humor at the forefront, which only makes the real-life drama of it that much more pronounced, especially at the end, when Baker allows the notion of family to define itself.
Body Awareness traffics in jealousy and devotion, maturity and folly, pomposity and true love. In its low-key brilliance, the play serves to heighten awareness – body and otherwise.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Annie Baker’s Body Awareness continues an extended run through March 11 as part of the Aurora Theatre Company’s Global Age Project. 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.