Theater Review

'Body Awareness' deftly navigates today's turns

CorrespondentMay 4, 2010 

  • What: "Body Awareness" by Annie Baker

    Where: Deep Dish Theater Company, University Mall, Chapel Hill

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, May 12-13 and May 19-20; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 14-15 and May 21-22; 2 p.m. Sunday and May 16

    Cost: $12-$18

    Contact: 968-1515;

Few couples can avoid threats to their unions, and most parents must deal with children's bumpy journeys into adulthood. Such challenges have multiplied in today's world as shrewdly observed in Annie Baker's "Body Awareness" in its local premiere at Deep Dish Theater Company.

Baker presents a week in the life of three residents and one visitor to the fictional town of Shirley, Vt. At the state college, Phyllis has helped organize "Body Awareness Week" with various guest artists. Phyllis agrees to house one of them, a photographer, at the home she shares with partner Joyce, a high school teacher whose college-age son, Jared, also lives in the house.

Jared has long exhibited symptoms of Asperger's syndrome, including preoccupations (he's constantly reading the dictionary and always carries an electric toothbrush) and poor social interactions (he has no friends and thinks everyone is his intellectual inferior). Phyllis is pushing Joyce to have Jared tested, but Joyce backs down when Jared becomes almost violent, denying he has problems.

When Phyllis finds out photographer Frank's show is of female nudes, including young girls, she goes into a rage, labeling Frank a misogynist and a pervert. Frank defends himself, pointing out that his photos include old and young of every body type and that his subjects willingly pose without pay.

Things escalate when Phyllis suspects Joyce is flirting with Frank and boil over when she learns Joyce wants to pose for him. Phyllis also is not happy when Joyce agrees to let Frank talk with Jared about relationships with women.

Despite the serious situations, Baker finds ways to make gentle fun of her characters and yet present them with warmth and understanding. She deftly weaves in hot-button points about political correctness, feminism, academic elitism and mental illness without taking sides. Only in Phyllis' daily speeches to event attendees do Baker's themes become too heavy-handed.

Director Paul Frellick perceptively masks his firmly controlled staging with a nicely relaxed quality, the characters' fears and follies simply presented. Sean Casserly's Jared is heartrending in his vulnerability, his repeated gestures and uninhibited outbursts finely calibrated. Bill Humphreys gives Frank a laid-back stance, astutely reflecting the character's wisdom.

Catherine Rodgers shows admirable range in Joyce's dilemmas as woman, lover and parent, while Susannah Hough's Phyllis is appropriately unraveled by circumstances that conflict with her entrenched personal views. Rob Hamilton's working kitchen set and evocative landscape hangings are beautifully lit by Liz Droessler.

The play has strong sexual language and touches on intimate topics, but Baker's intent, fully realized by Deep Dish, makes the production highly recommended.

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