Body Awareness

Deep Dish Theater
Through May 22

The tea lights gleamed like molten butter as our host stooped to ignite the Cherries Junior Johnson. The moonshine-saturated sponge cake flash-broiled the lake of 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 has been strong. And that social awkwardness: really, it’s no more than you’d expect of someone on their first date!”

I sat, slack-jawed. “That’s because I thought I was,” I whined in disbelief.

Her thesisliterally, as it turned outwas that critics had to have at least a touch of Asperger’s syndrome. A lack of empathy? A telltale compulsion to blurt out the most unwelcome truths, defying polite behavior?

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, intensely interested in etymologyand working at McDonald’s while still living at home with his mother. Also, he’s all but violently resistant to a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, 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 Jaredand his mom, Joyce, her partner Phyllis and their guest, Frankduring what Phyllis, a psychology teacher, has unilaterally declared as Body Awareness Week at the small Vermont college where she works.

Phyllis has co-opted Eating Disorder Awareness Week, getting grant money for academic departments to bring in speakers and artistssome only tenuously connected to the ostensible theme. In their midst is Frank, a photographer who is famous for a series of images taken of women in all stages of life and wellness. Phyllis bristles when she learns that the pictures are nudes and the photographer is male. She’ll do more than that when she learns 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.

Then again, most of us are uncomfortable to varying degrees with our bodies. Baker’s scriptand Paul Frellick’s direction of this superior productionimbues human, fully fleshed-out characters with passions, aches and hang-upssome of which they’re not aware.

Susannah Hough’s crisp interpretation brings coherence to Phyllis’ intellectual snobbishness, compassion and trip-wire political correctness. 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 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 portrays 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 differentbut not unrelatedquestions on what the body means. Equally strong script, direction and acting fully qualify Body Awareness for our highest recommendation. Don’t miss it.