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Bess Wohl
Ben Arons Photography
The Long Wharf cast.
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

A Conversation with Playwright Bess Wohl

By Lauren Yarger
Bess Wohl's play about a group of people looking for healing at a silent retreat has resulted in a lot of people talking....

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS, wrapping up a run at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theater, had two acclaimed runs in New York (at Ars Nova in 2015 and at Signature Center in 2016), for which it received the 2017 Outer Critics Award's John Gassner Award. And the chatter doesn't stop there.

Director Rachel Chavkin and the original Design team (Laura Jellinek, Scenic; Tilly Grimes, Costumes; Mike Inwood; Lighting; Stowe Nelson; Sound; Andrew Schneider, Projections; Noah Mease, Props), returned for the New Haven run, which launches a national tour.

A play that has very little dialogue (it's a silent retreat, after all) went through a lot of changes before hitting the stage. Originally Wohl had includes a lot of dialogue, but then realized she hadn't followed the characters on the challenge she had set for herself. She tried complete silence and found that didn't work either. She finally settled on a more realistic format. People at a silent rereat (which she actually has attended) would be silent most of the time, but there would be some who would break the rules. There also is a spiritual teacher, who is heard, but not seen.

Even after settling on the right storytelling format, the play still has gone through changes. It relies on stage directions and what the cast brings to their roles.

"The other parts have just as much to do with the storytelling as the words," she said.

Even though her background is in acting (she has an MFA from Yale School of Drama -- you might know her from her work in the films, "Flightplan,"Heights" or "The Shaggy Dog"), Wohl she is still discovering how actors can contribute to the characters. The collaboration of the cast, the director, the creative teams and circumstances, the play develops.

The result is that the Long Wharf production "feels new," she said. The cast there includes Connor Barrett (Jan), Ben Beckley (Ned), Edward Chin-Lyn (Rodney), Orville Mendoza (Teacher), Brenna Palughi (Alicia), Socorro Santiago (Joan), and Cherene Snow (Judy).

She's not sure whether the thought of coming to see a "silent" play scares off audience members, who reading a description think, ". . . this is going to be a great place to take a nap," or intrigues them with its "cool" concept. Whichever expectation they have, Wohl hopes they have as much fun watching as she did writing.

This play was a departure from her usual approach. AMERICAN HERO, BARCELONA, TOUCHED and the book for the musical PRETTY FILTHY. fall more into the category of works known for witty dialogue and banter. SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS offered a change-up.

"I was tired of the sound of my own voice," she said. "I put myself in silent retreat as a writer."

Remaining constant, however, was the joy she gets from working with talented female directors like the "incredible" Chavkin who quell some of her own fear and self doubt with their confidence and talent. (Chavkin received a Tony-Award nomination for her direction of NATASHA, PIERRE and the GREAT COMET of 1812.)

The time for women writers and directors on stage has arrived, Wohl said, especially in light of the current political climate.

Small Mouth Sounds runs at Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Sept. 24. CT).

The following National Tour Schedule is as follows:

  • San Francisco, American Conservatory Theatre Oct.11 - Dec. 10
  • Santa Monica, CA Broad Stage Jan.11 - 28,
  • Dallas ATT Performing Arts Center Feb. 1- 11
  • Miami, Arsht Center Feb. 16 - March 4
  • Philadelphia Theatre Company March 13 - April 1

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