5 STARS (highest recommendation)
Deep Dish Theater

Through May 22 | Twitter: @byronwoods | Facebook: arts.byron.woods

The tea lights gleamed like molten butter—the only source of light in the entire restaurant—as our host stooped to ignite the Cherries Junior Johnson. The sponge cake, soaked in moonshine, had just begun to flash-broil its little lake of rendered fruit and syrup as my companion leaned forward.

“You’ve had such success with your writing,” she said, as I looked (demurely, I hoped) off to one side.

“And you’re so high-functioning,” she marveled breathlessly, while the waiter’s hand-tossed mix of baking soda and confectioners’ sugar blanketed the flames, the table and our evening wear.

“Your eye contact? It’s been so strong tonight,” she purred. “And your social awkwardness: really, it’s no more than you’d expect of someone on their first date!”

I sat, slackjawed. “That’s because I thought I was,” I whined in disbelief.

Silly me. All those probing questions during dinner, that I thought just might be leading to a snuggle session later on? Not quite: She’d been building a medical profile instead.

Hm. Perhaps the metal clipboard should have tipped me off.

Her thesis—which was, ultimately, all she wanted to discuss with me—was that critics have to have at least a touch of Asperger’s syndrome. After all, what other job description involves a total lack of empathy? Plus that tell-tale compulsion to blurt out the most inappropriate and unwelcome truths, defying all social norms when it comes to polite behavior? Hmmm?

I resisted the diagnosis. I did, however, let her pick up the check.

Which put me, come to think of it, in a somewhat similar position to Jared, one of the riveting characters we meet at the start of BODY AWARENESS, the current production at Deep Dish Theater. Jared ‘s 21 years old, intensely interested in etymology—and working at McDonalds while still living at home with his mother. Also, he’s all but violently resistant to a diagnosis of Asperger’s, with a collection of tics, blunt observations and repetitive, limited motions and interests, and only the vaguest sense of social relationships or obligations.

But we meet Jared—and his mom, Joyce, her partner, Phyllis and their guest, Frank—during what psychology teacher Phyllis has unilaterally declared to be “Body Awareness Week” at the small Vermont college where she works.

Actually, Phyllis has co-opted Eating Disorder Awareness Week, getting grant money for academic departments to bring in speakers and artists—some only tenuously connected to the ostensible theme. One of those visitors is a photographer, famous for a series of images taken of women in all stages of wellness and life. But Phyllis bristles when she learns that the pictures are nudes, and the photographer is male. Never mind: she’ll do a lot more than that when she discovers that Frank, the photographer, is her and Joyce’s houseguest for the week.

Annie Baker’s nuanced 2008 script combines comedy and drama in a send-up of political correctness and a critique of what the playwright might term knee-jerk feminism. Ironically, Phyllis’ own deep-seated discomfort with her chosen topic all but radiates from her brittle introductory speeches to events during the week. But then again, most of us are uncomfortable to varying degrees with our bodies. Baker’s script—and Paul Frellick’s direction, in this superior production—imbues human, fully fleshed-out characters with passions, aches and hang-ups, at least some of which they’re not aware.

Susannah Hough’s crisp interpretation brings coherence to Phyllis’ intellectual snobbishness, compassion and tripwire political sensibilities. Catherine Rodgers fully embodies Joyce, a teacher who now recognizes and carefully defends herself when others don’t respect her boundaries. Sean Casserly suggests a dour, youthful Randy Newman as Jared, but his convincing and ultimately poignant character work gives us a defiant and unaware young man who slowly begins to realize that his mind might not be the unimpeachable fortress he claims at first. In their midst, Bill Humphreys conveys Frank as a gruff, slightly rough-edged soul, but an artist still quite clear-eyed about the implications of his work.

In short, four deeply developed characters, each trying to figure out different—but ultimately, not unrelated—questions on what the body ultimately means. Equally strong script, direction and acting fully qualifies Body Awareness for our highest recommendation. Don’t miss it.