‘Body Awareness’ at Theater J by Anne Tsang


Theater J is starting its 2012-2013 “This is Who We Are” season with the captivating, poignant, and humorous Body Awareness by Annie Baker.

Body Awareness, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, is set in the fictional Vermont town of Shirley and revolves around the non-traditional family formed by Phyllis (Susan Lynskey), a psychology professor at Shirley State College, her high school teacher girlfriend, Joyce (MaryBeth Wise), and Joyce’s genius, introverted, possibly autistic son, Jared (Adi Stein). This play expertly weaves together themes of mother-son tension, jealousy, feminism, love, family, male vs. female issues, and self revelation and discovery. Baker tempers the tension with many moments of humor.

Jared (Adi Stein) emphatically claims to Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) and Phyllis (Susan Lynskey) that he is not “retarded” and that he does not have Aspberger’s. Photo by C. Stanley Photgraphy.

Phyllis is an ‘enlightened’ woman, what some might call a feminist, so instead of participating in ‘National Eating Disorder Week’ at Shirley State College, she has decide to rename the week ‘Body Awareness Week’ and has planned a week of artists, speakers, and exhibits that encourages a more positive view and acceptance of ones own body. While it may seem like Phyllis has it ‘all together,’ her home life is rather contentious as the tensions between her, Joyce, and Jared continue to rise. Phyllis and Joyce’s relationships is not only burdened with their past but they are further burdened by Jared’s presence and the possibility that he may have Asperger’s Syndrome. They have given Jared a book about Asperger’s in hopes that after he reads it he will agree that he may have Asperger’s and seek treatment.

It only gets worse when Frank Bonitatibus (Michael Kramer), one of the visiting artists, arrives to stay with Phyllis and Joyce. Joyce is mesmerized and drawn to Frank’s photographs. Phyllis, used to being the one in control, is deeply offended by Frank’s photographic exhibit and calls it “crass, exploitative photography on the verge of pornorgraphy” and can’t understand why Joyce is so connected with the photographs and with Frank. Jared also sees Frank as the missing father figure and seeks his advice on meeting girls. Tensions come to a head when Joyce decides to pose nude for one of Frank’s photographs. Will this non-traditional family of three, who obviously love each other, be able to overcome their differences and help Jared?

Frank (Michael Kramer) and Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) contemplate what is more important in art – the artist’s intention in the creation or the viewer’s interpretation. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The majority of the story, as with many family related interactions, takes place in the kitchen/dining room and in Phyllis and Joyce’s bedroom. Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger and Lighting Designer Nancy Shertler use a window set in the bedroom and contrast the idyllic nature of the outside world with the tensions in the house. They use a PowerPoint presentation to help the audience envision the various artists that have been invited to perform, speak, or exhibit at the college for ‘Body Awareness Week’ – including a Pakistani Refugee Children Dance Troupe, and a puppet show.

The casting is perfection. Lynskey’s condescending tones and snobbish mannerisms are spot on. Wise’s portrayal of the many facets of Joyce’s character – a loving mother, but a little unsure of herself, and becoming more self aware and assertive – is done with such ease and allows the viewer to see a little bit of themselves in her. Kramer’s Frank is charismatic and charming, and utterly “male.” Stein’s portrayal as the brilliant yet introverted Jared is amazingly touching. He moves from being violent and threatening, to brilliant and sarcastic with such ease. His valiant effort to prove that he doesn’t have Asperger’s is both humorous and heart-wrenching and makes you want to reach out, hold him tight, and tell him everything will be alright.

Joyce (MaryBeth Wise) comforts a very distraught Jared (Adi Stein). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Body Awareness is an honest, yet fascinating and funny look into what it means to be part of a family (even if it’s a non-traditional one) and how we, as ordinary, flawed human beings can make connections with each other. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Body Awareness runs through September 23, 2012 at Theater J’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater in the Washington Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online. There are also several activities in conjunction with the show including a photo exhibit entitled ‘The Beauty Project’ and several post-show discussions. See here for more information.

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