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Silent retreat inspires Bess Wohl’s ‘Small Mouth Sounds’

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Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds” runs through Dec. 10 at ACT’s Strand Theater. (Courtesy American Conservatory Theater)
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At first, playwright Bess Wohl was a spy in the house of silence.

She arrived at the silent meditation workshop armed with wine and snacks, thinking it would be more of a girls’ weekend. But no, this was serious spiritual business, and before she actually figured out how to be comfortable in the deafening silence, she remembers thinking: “This might make a good play, but then I was also trying to absorb the lessons so they might have an impact on me.”

Some might have said the resulting play, “Small Mouth Sounds,” was not producible because it is almost entirely silent.

But this comedy about six urban types at a silent retreat turned out to be New York-based Wohl’s biggest hit yet. The quiet play made a lot of noise, and after a successful production in New York last year, “Small Mouth Sounds” is on tour, landing this week at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater.

Wohl had never written a script quite like this one, which was mostly stage directions.

“I had to figure out how much to articulate and how much to leave open,” she says on the phone from her Manhattan home. “If you prescribe every moment the actors become like robots, hitting moments, not living them.”

Director Rachel Chavkin, most recently of Broadway’s “The Great Comet,” helped the actors find telling details, like in a sequence near the start of the play with the students showing up and taking off their shoes. “It’s almost like a ballet, who bumps into whom, who forgets to take off their shoes — all these tiny beats of awkwardness that are painstakingly rehearsed like a dance,” Wohl says.

Though the play elicits laughs, Wohl never thought of it as a comedy.

“On stage, things I find upsetting or painful somehow end up being funny,” she says. “The delicate balance of this play is to find the humor in the struggle of life so it can be funny and painful. It strives for the full spectrum of experience when we are searching for a way to change. I think the experience of writing this play changed me as a writer, but the play really asks if people can change or if we just cycle through the same things in our lives. I’m still trying to figure that out.”

IF YOU GO
Small Mouth Sounds
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 10
Tickets: $14 to $90
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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