Main Stage West kicks off a new season with big laughs in Annie Baker’s candid snapshot of a dysfunctional, modern family. Body Awareness follows five days in the lives of lesbian couple Joyce and Phyllis, Joyce’s live-in son from a previous marriage and a controversial houseguest who could sink or save the trio’s tense relationship.
Joyce (Nancy Prebilich) is struggling with 21-year-old Jared (Elijah Pinkham), who likely has Asperger’s Syndrome—a suggestion he vehemently resents—and whose social skills are sorely lacking. His violent outbursts and arrogant retorts, obsession with etymology and bizarre bond with an electric toothbrush are equal parts shocking, hilarious and moving. Pinkham’s performance is simply stellar.
Meanwhile Phyllis (Lydia Revelos) is organizing Body Awareness Week at the Vermont college where she teaches psychology. It’s her attempt at a more global, “positive” spin on what was formerly Eating Disorder Awareness Week, featuring a diverse and exhaustive line-up of guest lecturers and artists. (Baker hits on all the hallmarks of liberal academia, poking tasteful fun at its obsession with political correctness.)
But hosting visiting photographer Frank (Zachary Tendick) is not what Phyllis bargained for. A high-strung feminist who abhors the “white male gaze,” she finds his pictures of naked women objectifying and exploitative. Joyce, on the other hand, thinks they’re beautiful and empowering. Are Frank’s intentions pure, or is he just a big phony? If his art speaks to someone, should that matter?
The drama ramps up when Joyce decides she wants to pose for Frank, who’s been counseling Jared on matters of self-confidence and the opposite sex. Exposing ourselves to others may be liberating, but how and when is it appropriate? Jared tests the limits with devastating results while Joyce and Phyllis find themselves at perilous odds.
Tendick does well in his first acting role, keeping pace with a group of talented veterans. Revelos and Prebilich make convincing lovers, breathing life into all the tender and tense moments that comprise a long-term relationship. Directors John Shillington and Janine Sternlieb nail the pacing.
Baker packs subtle depth and room for meaningful reflection into an unassuming and seriously funny package. It stands in stark contrast against the much bleaker family portrait being drawn in Novato Theater Company’s coinciding production of The Humans. Body Awareness succeeds where the competition falls short, serving up a satisfying mix of humor, humility and hope. Go see it.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★
“Body Awareness” runs through Sunday, Sept. 22, at Main Stage West, 104 N Main St., Sebastopol. Days and times vary. $15–$30. 707.823.0177.