Annie Baker’s 2009 OBIE-winning play, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” opens with all five characters lying on their backs with their eyes closed in a community center in Shirley, Vermont. In the current production at the Rep Stage, there’s a long pause, then someone says, “one.” After another pause, someone says, “two,” and someone else says, “three.” After a longer pause two different people say “four” at the same time, and Marty the teacher says, “Start again.” Long pause. “One.”
This kind of sensitivity exercise (you’re supposed to be so aware of the breathing patterns in the room that you won’t speak when someone else is about to) is a staple of group therapy, new-age training classes, and acting workshops. Marty’s class is supposedly the latter, though it seems to emphasize therapy more than theater. Other exercises in this particular six-week class include speaking in nonsense words, pretending to be different animals, reenactments of past traumas, and telling your life story as if you were someone else in the group.
There are several ways you could turn such a class into a play. You could demonstrate and extol the emotional restoration provided by such exercises. You could satirize the artificiality and quasi-religious aspects of such sessions. You could explore the way that unearthed emotions have a tendency to do as much damage as healing.
Baker employs all three of these strategies. And while all three are skillfully pursued, none of them is particularly powerful. The result, even with solid performances by all five members of the Rep Stage cast, is a show that is at times amusing and touching but never riveting.
Until her late-play emotional collapse, Marty is relentlessly cheerful. Meg Kelly, a teacher herself at Towson University, plays the 55-year-old Marty with a crinkly smile, short red hair, and a series of tie-dye and American-Indian-print shirts. When Lauren, the lone teenager in the class, asks when they are going to do, you know, some real acting, Marty aims that smile at Lauren and reassures her that this is how you learn to really act. The 16-year-old girl, played by Natalie Collins in a gray hoodie and very long red ponytail, is unconvinced—and so are we.
And yet Lauren is the one student who seems to actually get something out of the class. A severely withdrawn girl with hunched-up shoulders and balled-up hands at the beginning of the play, she relaxes little by little like pasta in boiling water. She is transformed before our eyes, even if she never learns anything about memorizing lines and interpreting them.
By contrast, the class’s two adult men, Marty’s college-professor husband James and the recently divorced carpenter Schultz, are traumatized by the experience. Like so many men who are badgered by the women in their lives to “share their feelings,” they soon find that some emotions are better left unmentioned—especially when they involve overwhelming lust and then resentment for Theresa, the former professional actress who has just moved to Shirley from New York City to escape a flagging career and a toxic relationship.
Theresa is played by Beth Hylton, a member of the Everyman Theatre’s Resident Acting Company, as a radiantly flirtatious blonde in black outfits, who outdoes everyone else in the class with her fluid movement and quick imagination. Both in the class exercises and in the after-class banter, she encourages the attention of the two men until she realizes too late that she has raised expectations she doesn’t want to meet.
Schultz, played by Yury Lomakin as a rugged Vermonter in a brown beard and faded jeans, enrolled in the class to further explore his artistic side (he makes one-of-a-kind chairs) but ends up involuntarily exploring his unsettled feelings about women. And James, played by Tom Byrn as a shambling academic with glasses and a salt-and-pepper beard, is reluctantly enrolled in the class to support his wife Marty, but her exercises reveal buried feelings neither wanted to confront.
That’s one of the playwright’s main themes: that maybe one shouldn’t bare all of one’s feelings to strangers; maybe some boundaries have legitimate purposes and should be respected. But in her effort to balance that theme with her two competing goals—realistically depicting an actual new-age theater class and satirizing such a class—she blunts the impact of each separate strategy. She never drops any of the three balls she’s juggling, but she never gets them going very fast or very high either. And director Suzanne Beal, in doing her best to serve the script, falls into the same trap.