A welcome addition to the usual summer lineup of big productions across the state, the first annual Portland Theater Festival tries to prove that small can still be beautiful.
The organizers hope to present varied and challenging work with a “social focus”. However, prospective ticket buyers who might initially feel the urge to brace themselves after that description should know that at least the festival’s first three-track offering is quite engaging and fun, while also offering more than a few ways to think ahead.
Annie Baker’s 2008 play Body Awareness is set in the home of partners Phyllis, a psychology professor, and Joyce, a high school humanities teacher, in Vermont. Joyce’s young adult son Jared, a McDonald’s employee who has some signs of autism spectrum disorder, lives with them.
Phyllis runs Body Awareness Week on campus and has invited Frank, a guest artist who specializes in nude photography of women, to stay with them. This doesn’t seem like a good idea for a family already on the brink of dealing with Jared, as well as their own personal and professional challenges.
An imaginative confluence of themes centered around the characters’ interactions with each other’s public and private identities fuels scenes of touching warmth and striking anger in this 90-minute play. These scenes are punctuated by Phyllis’ short academic lectures on the state of things like image ownership in the wider culture.
The play does well at providing a satirical look at current academic discourse, with some intensely insightful personal moments, all well conceived and performed by a strong cast led by local powerhouse Sally Wood.
Courtney Cook is Phyllis, a stressed-out academic who isn’t afraid to throw a few spikes at her partner, son, or houseguest. But in some really tender scenes with Jared and Joyce, Cook brings her character touchingly close to her almost defenseless self.
Moira Driscoll brings her soulful eyes and comical sense of timing to her Joyce to settle conflicts while also resolving one of her own involving her temptation to pose for Frank. She evokes normality in a piece that dances around the question of what it actually is.
Whip Hubley, a local talent with a stellar resume, makes one wonder if the suspicion that Frank might be a villain is at least partially correct. However, comedy wins in scenes where he performs a dinner ritual or gives Jared fairly explicit advice on how to please a date.
Parker Hough is utterly endearing as the self-proclaimed self-taught Jared, who amusingly suffers the “idiots” around him as he screeches at those who get too close to the bone when they bring up his apparent condition. Hough matches his character’s unpredictability with some signs of hope just beneath the tough surface.
The festival continues with two more plays that also promise to challenge and entertain audiences well into the first week of September.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer based in Portland.