Reviewed by Judy Richter
Body Awareness Week at a small state college in a small Vermont town triggers a crisis in a household that already has its share of tension. That's the basic premise in "Body Awareness" by Annie Baker, being given its Bay Area premiere as part of Aurora Theatre Company's annual Global Age Project. This venture encourages "playwrights to address life in the 21st century and beyond," artistic director Tom Ross says in his program notes.
The household in question includes Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a PhD psychology professor at the college; Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen), her partner of three years and a high school teacher of cultural studies; and Jared (Patrick Russell), Joyce's 21-year-old son from her marriage to a man, who is no longer in the picture. Jared, who probably has Asperger's syndrome, is a social misfit who works at McDonald's and is obsessed with both the Oxford English Dictionary and online pornography. He refuses to acknowledge that he could have Asperger's, and he refuses to get therapy.
Although Phyllis is chair of Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorders Awareness Week), she doesn't know that the visiting artist who has been assigned to stay at her home is a male photographer. This photographer, Frank (Howard Swain), specializes in female nudes of all ages and body types from young girls to senior citizens. She regards his photos as just short of pornography, especially when their subjects are girls. Joyce, on the other hand, thinks the photos are beautiful. She's also intrigued enough to ask if he'll photograph her. The situation evolves into a relationship-threatening conflict between the two women.
In the meantime, Frank immediately insinuates himself into the household, reshaping its dynamics. As portrayed by the physically commanding Swain, he initially comes across as a bit of a sleaze, especially when he looks Joyce over during a conversation at the opening of his exhibit. Later, though, he's a more sympathetic character as he serves as a sort of father figure to Jared, who seeks his advice on sexuality and dating. Unfortunately, Frank's advice backfires as Jared commits a highly inappropriate act.
The dialogue is smart and funny, especially in the hands of director Joy Carlin and her ace cast. All four of these fine actors evoke their characters' quirks and complexities quite well, making them interesting and thought-provoking.
The playwright's theme is body awareness as represented by the way people regard their own bodies as well as how they look at others' bodies. This latter point is especially true in how men regard women, which often is in a sexual sense -- a characteristic abhorred by Phyllis, an ardent feminist. Still, there's enough substance in other aspects of the play that one wonders how Phyllis and Joyce got together, especially since Joyce has not had a previous lesbian relationship. Then, once they got together, how did Phyllis decide that she loved Joyce enough to put up with Jared? He's not only unlovable most of the time but also downright scary once in a while. Thus one wonders why Joyce apparently didn't seek psychological help for him when he was younger.
Besides the exemplary work by the director and actors, this production benefits from costumes by Christine Dougherty and music and sound by Chris Houston. Set and light designer Kent Dorsey makes smooth work of scene changes in this episodic, 90-minute work, performed without intermission.
Baker is young, only about 30, so it will be interesting to see how her work evolves as she matures and gains more insight into the human condition.