Small Mouth Sounds Brings a Silent Retreat to the Arsht Stage

The cast of Small Mouth Sounds: Ben Beckley (left), Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Edward Chin-Lyn, Cherene Snow, and Socorro Santiago.
The cast of Small Mouth Sounds: Ben Beckley (left), Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Edward Chin-Lyn, Cherene Snow, and Socorro Santiago. T Charles Erickson
It’s been a tough week in South Florida. We could all use some deep belly breaths and some quiet time to reflect and regain our balance. Bess Wohl’s play Small Mouth Sounds, which opened at the Arsht Center last weekend and runs through March 4, offers just that by giving audiences 100 uninterrupted minutes to immerse themselves in a play set in a silent retreat in the woods.

“A friend of mine said to me in the initial stages of writing the play: ‘You know, anytime you go to a play, you are always in a forced silent retreat.’ I started to think about that. I was interested in casting the audience as participants in the retreat... The audiences can even synchronize their breathing with the teacher,” says Wohl, who is based in New York City. “There’s a moment when the stage empties out and no one is there. We let the audience be the people in the retreat and let them have experience of the teacher as if they are attending the retreat itself.”

Small Mouth Sounds observes the interactions among six retreat attendees diverse in race and circumstance as they seek enlightenment or escape from urban life at a silent meditation guided by a spiritual guru known only as “Teacher.” The play is unique in that it contains little dialogue, forcing actors to rely primarily on physical action and suggestion to communicate.

“[Through writing the play,] I learned that silence is not the same as nothingness," the playwright says. "Even when nothing is being said, something is happening. There’s an exchange of energy, always a story moving forward, even though it’s not verbal.”

The play was inspired by Wohl’s own experience at her first silent retreat seven years ago. Primed with book knowledge about spirituality, armed with wine and snacks, and prepared for a fun girls' weekend with her friend, Wohl was surprised when the teacher announced at the end of the first lecture: “We will now observe silence.” After she returned to the cabin in quiet, Wohl thought the experience would make an interesting premise for a play and continued going attending silent retreats in upstate New York.

“Going on the retreats had a dual purpose," she says. "On the one hand, I was curious to see if I could figure out how I could write about this. At the same time, I was on my own spiritual journey of searching and discovery and also learning about how to incorporate some of these ideas into my own life. It was this great thing where writing the play had an added life benefit.”
click to enlarge Cherene Snow and Connor Barrett in Small Mouth Sounds. - T CHARLES ERICKSON
Cherene Snow and Connor Barrett in Small Mouth Sounds.
T Charles Erickson
But don’t think the play, which is directed by Rachel Chavkin and produced by Eva Price, is only about profound experiences with nature, meditation, and enlightenment. It’s also filled with comic moments incorporating full-frontal male nudity, recreational drug use, and a loud sex scene in which characters struggle with the ascetic rules of the retreat.

For the South Florida community that is still reeling from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last week, Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds might be able to provide a bit of space, time, and comedy to help cope and regroup.

“So much of terrible things come from people feeling disconnected from others and their selves,” Wohl says. “Theater connects people and creates empathy... Anytime people can come together and experience something communally, it connects us and reminds us of our humanity.”

Small Mouth Sounds. Through March 4 at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-929-6722; Tickets start at $50.
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Minhae Shim Roth is an essayist, journalist, and academic.
Contact: Minhae Shim Roth