The 2009 Obie-winning play Circle Mirror Transformation is like a five-finger exercise minus a digit or two. In its well-mounted area debut at Rep Stage in Howard County, it makes for a pleasant night out — though if any of its characters undergoes anything as cataclysmic as a transformation, it happens very, very quietly.
Playwright Annie Baker is aspiring to minimalism here, eschewing the scenery, so to speak. Her goal through a series of short scenes and frequent blackouts is an illusion of casual spontaneity, with maybe a tiny human epiphany tossed in now and then to reward viewers’ patience.
Another contemporary playwright, Wallace Shawn (Aunt Dan and Lemon), once wrote that if a writer could only get to the truth of what was going on with the people in the cigar store next door, it would blow our minds. Well, Baker seems to be testing that theory, only with folks in a beginning acting class out in rural Vermont.
Life-or-death issues don’t much figure in the dramatic equation here. Baker is mostly concerned with raw human emotions, especially those that bounce back at us from the hidden landscape of psychic traumas we do our best to keep buried.
Ironically, learning to become an actor forces a return to that forbidden country, so Baker is right to feel she is onto some fissionable material.
The title refers to one of the acting exercises used to get these beginning actors to loosen up and awaken their inner child. Behind this and other forms of freewheeling improvisation stands Marty, a 55-year-old “new age” healing guru and group facilitator who thinks that letting it all hang out is the key to creativity.
Almost at once we become aware of how guarded and closed off her four students are being. But are they all tongue-tied by political correctness and the fear of being judged themselves, or is each an emotional fugitive of some sort?
They seem to permit themselves no strong feelings or reactions as they gamely play along with Marty’s class exercises.
In one such exercise, they take turns swapping identities, introducing themselves as someone else in the group and guessing at his or her motives for being there. That frees them to talk a bit more than their usual, but it also sets the level of superficiality and hearsay pretty high.
Anything we can discern of these characters beyond that is treated as a huge leap of insight. Slowly, through six weeks of workshops, we piece together a little nugget of truth about each enrollee.
That we do come to care about these individuals is a testament to the strong casting and direction of Suzanne Beal at Rep Stage.
Meg Kelly dominates the evening as Marty, the instantly recognizable hippie-dippy team-building leader whose horror of passing judgment on others may mask a deep disappointment with her own life. Kelly is never less than believable, and so openly nurturing that you may want to find her at intermission to tell her your own woes.
Yury Lomakin is solid as Schultz, the divorced carpenter who still wears his wedding ring and an aura of defeat. Beth Hylton is very good as well as the discouraged actress, Theresa, who reaches out to Schultz as a man but finds there is nothing there but a wounded victim.
Tom Byrn is also sensational as James, Marty’s own husband, who can’t seem to break out of her authoritative shadow.
Finally, there is Natalie Collins as the only genuine adolescent in the class, Lauren. Collins is so totally credible sulking quietly and trying to disappear in the background that you can hear the audience bristle with approval when Lauren impulsively blurts out, “Are we going to do any real acting?”
The small-town community dance studio is achieved with a few standing mirrors and exercise mats by Set Consultant A. David Blachowicz. Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows rescues a few moods and general focus from the flood of fluorescent pragmatism and numbing blackouts.
Running Time: About two hours, with one intermission.
Circle Mirror Transformation by Rep Stage plays through March 22, 2015 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.