From the minute Marin Theatre Company’s production of New York playwright Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” opens — with the five performers lying silently on the floor in what is clearly, right down to the last perfect detail, a community center multipurpose room (set by Andrew Boyce), you know this play is going to take its own sweet time to get where it’s going.
And if you trust Baker’s writerly instincts (her “Body Awareness” and “The Aliens” have played recently in excellent productions at, respectively, Aurora Theatre and SF Playhouse), you know that this comedy will be realistic, nuanced and ultimately deeply affecting.
This is the first day of teacher Marty’s six-week acting workshop in small-town Vermont.
In attendance: Marty’s husband, James (L. Peter Callender); disaffected teen Lauren (Marissa Keltie), who’s hoping to win the role of Maria in “West Side Story” at her high school; lovely Theresa (Arwen Anderson), a former actress who sought refuge here, far from competitive New York; and awkward, slightly pretentious Schultz, a carpenter (Robert Parsons).
During two intermissionless hours (that seemed, to me, to fly by and leave me wanting even more), Baker presents a series of short vignettes set over the course of all six weeks.
In that time, we get to know these five people, and they get to know one another, in almost uncomfortably intimate ways. Hopes, dreams, fears, grief, memories — and even, in a crucial scene, darkest secrets — slowly crystallize.
The vignettes are punctuated by exercises familiar to anyone who’s taken a beginning acting class.
They’re conducted by Marty (Julia Brothers), who’s peppy and gung-ho — until she isn’t anymore. The exercises include drama therapy and psychodrama-type miniscenarios that are odd, funny and revealing.
It’s not necessarily a surprise that someone will become attracted to someone else, that bonds will develop and fracture, that people will get hurt and hurt others.
But it’s the way Baker goes about all this — so delicately, so seemingly intuitively, with such believable spurts of dialogue yet so much left unsaid — that makes her little microcosm of humanity feel so universal.
This regional premiere at Marin Theatre Company, a co-production with Encore Theatre Company, is blessed with an all-star local cast, and, under Kip Fagan’s sensitive direction, all perform at the highest level.
Beyond that, several of the actors are doing work that’s different from anything I’ve seen them do before. Baker’s writing seems to bring out the best in them.