Smart direction, strong cast carry excellent Pygmalion Theatre Company production of Annie Baker’s Body Awareness

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Many of us overlook the fact that we do not live in a politically correct world. But, there also are numerous reasons why trying to be politically correct or censoring the words we believe might be too sensitive to discuss the topics that should be discussed ends up being nearly as bad. So we fall into a petty contest of feelings where becoming angered, offended or uncomfortable makes it difficult to actually address the problems that led to the ideal of political correctness in the first place. The debate over political correctness rarely transcends grievances about hurt feelings.

Annie Baker’s play Body Awareness, which had its premiere in 2008, holds up quite well when it comes to understanding that even if some conversations are likely to make someone upset or angry, that does not mean we should stop talking about the issues which brought on the conversations.

Brenda Hattingh Peatross, Pygmalion Theatre Company, Body Awareness, by Annie Baker and directed by Morag Shepherd. Photo Credit: Robert Holman.

For its Utah premiere, the Pygmalion Theatre Company offers an excellent production of Body Awareness, with smart direction by Morag Shepherd and an all-around strong ensemble of actors. The run continues through May 21 at the Black Box Theatre in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. It is a marvelous conclusion to the company’s 2021-22 season.

The comedy-drama takes place in Vermont, where Phyllis (spot-on performance by Brenda Hattingh Peatross), a professor of psychology, has organized Body Awareness Week at the small state-funded college where she is on the faculty. As director, Shepherd keeps the pace moving crisply as each day of the week progresses, producing its own set of emotional crises, humiliations and confrontations. In the early moments of the play, it is evident that Phyllis is going to have a rough time of it.

Teresa Sanderson, Pygmalion Theatre Company, Body Awareness, by Annie Baker and directed by Morag Shepherd. Photo Credit: Robert Holman.

Speaking in front of an erasable whiteboard, Phyllis stumbles trying to find her best academic-sounding groove in remarks to open the week’s events. Baker’s script makes good satire of the ivory tower approach in academia, setting up an easy target for the humor. Body Awareness Week touches on the expected issues — the male gaze and how women can reclaim the dominant culture when it comes to standards of physical beauty and their representation. Hattingh Peatross adds the right shades and tints to her character, who reminds a bit of the social justice warriors a/k/a white knights who have good intentions but also fail to comprehend the full spectrum of the issues about which they are trying to heighten awareness. Adding to Phyllis’ steadily accumulating miseries is the parallel irony emerging from events in her home. 

Phyllis prides herself on her sensitivity and conscientious awareness but her confidence also is put through rigorous tests in her home life. Eventually, she realizes that the event in which she had invested a good deal of intellectual energy is falling well short of its expectations.

Tom Roche, Pygmalion Theatre Company, Body Awareness, by Annie Baker and directed by Morag Shepherd. Photo Credit: Robert Holman.

At home, her partner Joyce (astutely interpreted by Teresa Sanderson) has a growing curiosity about Frank (a very good understated performance by Tom Cowan), a photographer known for his female nude portraits, which are featured in an exhibition in conjunction with Body Awareness Week. Frank also is a guest in their home during his brief stay in Vermont. The character of Frank could be played in various ways that amplify issues of the male gaze and problems being addressed in a week of body awareness events. Phyllis is practically vehement in her objection to his photographic portraits and she becomes increasingly livid when Joyce contemplates posing nude for him. It might be tempting and easy to frame Frank as an insensitive sleazeball but Cowan’s portrayal suggests a more interesting complex character. This offers yet another avenue for recognizing how often our reflexive responses and actions are shaped by stereotypes, prejudices and the privileges we carry.

Another significant layer that touches on the above points comes with Jared (also an excellent performance by Tom Roche), who is Joyce’s son and whom his mother and Phyllis are convinced that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. Jared is an odd, awkward but intelligent young man. He has dark humor down pat, for sure. Roche steps effortlessly in maneuvering each step of his character’s journey. This ranges from his defiance about seeing a therapist to acting out impulsively and lacking any concern for social niceties and empathy. At one point, he seeks advice from Frank about sex and losing his virginity. Frank means well but he also misses what really is happening with Jared. Roche telegraphs convincingly the stigma that Jared fears if indeed he will be forced to accept a diagnosis of Asperger’s.

Tom Cowan, Pygmalion Theatre Company, Body Awareness, by Annie Baker and directed by Morag Shepherd.Photo Credit: Robert Holman.

As Joyce, Sanderson also has a chance to show her newfound skills in playing the recorder instrument and in reciting a Hebrew prayer for the Shabbat meal. Joyce’s reconnection with her Jewish heritage is a minor yet important element in making the narrative layers cohesive as possible.

Baker’s script rightly leaves the central questions open ended, which is effective because while the words and dialogue may have been written nearly 15 years they are timely and relevant now, particularly as the various issues touched on have expanded their influence and impact on social media platforms.

The play was originally set to have its Utah premiere in 2020 but then was sidelined by the pandemic. Performances will continue the second and third weekends in May, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 2 p.m. on Sundays and an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. For ticket information, see the Pygmalion website.

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