Local Theater Review: Pygmalion Productions' BODY AWARENESS | Buzz Blog
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Local Theater Review: Pygmalion Productions' BODY AWARENESS

Savvy comedy of manners avoids speeches in favor of characters who need to understand themselves.


Tom Roche in Pygmalion Productions' Body Awareness - ROBERT HOMAN
  • Robert Homan
  • Tom Roche in Pygmalion Productions' Body Awareness
In a messy, complicated time, it’s easy for a creative work to find like-minded audiences if it lays out a thesis full of easy, applause-line talking points. And it’s clear that’s not remotely what playwright Annie Baker was interested in doing with Body Awareness.

The premise feels ready-made for such an approach, as Phyllis (Brenda Hattingh Peatross)—a faculty member at a New England university—kicks off the introduction on Monday of a socially-conscious “Body Awareness Week.” Phyllis and her partner, Joyce (Teresa Sanderson), are preparing to host a visiting artist for the occasion, photographer Frank (Tom Cowan), which would be enough to cause a little disruption. But the household is already a bit disrupted by the tension between Joyce, Phyllis and Joyce’s adult son Jared (Tom Roche), who refuses to acknowledge the possibility that he might have Asperger’s Syndrome.

Pygmalion Productions’ staging—overseen by director Morag Shepherd—makes good use of Allen Smith’s set design that combines a university auditorium with Phyllis and Joyce’s kitchen and bedroom for a space that feels increasingly claustrophobic. It’s a way of drawing attention to the friction between the characters, yet it also gradually becomes clear that the conflicts are more internal and external.

That’s because the title of Body Awareness is a bit of a fake-out, initially suggesting that it’s about being aware of the lived experience of other people, when it’s much more about people who aren’t aware of themselves. It takes a variety of forms in these characters, from Phyllis struggling every time she’s called on to be the earnest spokesperson for “Body Awareness Week”—and Hattingh Peatross is blisteringly funny in those scenes—to Jared’s determination not to be branded with a diagnosis. Yet it’s also more subtly on display in Frank, who's so absolutely comfortable in his old-school sense of masculinity that it never occurs to him that his photographs of nude women might be problematic to anyone, or that he’s giving Jared sex advice that could get Jared into trouble.

There’s an almost throwaway moment in Body Awareness when the dictionary-obsessed Jared addresses the distinction between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” definitions of words—how they’re used in common parlance, vs. a sense of how they should be used. Baker’s play explores that tension between looking at how things are, and looking at your sense of how they should be, even if those perceptions are tangled up in what you believe to be true about yourself. This sharp comedy of manners has no time for simplistic speeches, or for absolutist definitions, not when it recognizes that the people who point that one finger outward aren’t always thinking much about the three pointing back at themselves.

Body Awareness runs through May 21 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (138 W. 300 South); for more information and ticket availability, visit here.