The new age idea that physical disease develops from something going on with you on a mental, spiritual or emotional level is explored in a chaotic three-day workshop in Erin Mallon’s sometimes goofily comedic, sometimes serious and bravely unique play, “Soft Animals.” It is being presented, in its first professional production, by Vivid Stage in Summit through Oct. 9.
Mark (played by Jason Szamreta), a nurse writing a book tentatively titled “Your Health Is All in Your Head,” assembles four people suffering from strange maladies, for the workshop. Jacob (Christopher John Young) can’t sleep, ever. Emily (Emaline Williams) can’t feel pain. One of Sabrina’s (Stephanie Windland) hands seems to have a mind of its own. Dylan (Darin F. Earl II) can’t forget anything.
They’re taking part in the workshop, Mark explains, “because you’re at war with your body and you want to be well … ‘dis-ease’ only occurs in bodies that are not ‘at ease.’ Throughout this workshop, we’re going to re-create the ease that your bodies are calling out for. We’re going to dive deep, and relocate the joy that lives in you.”
Mark’s group meditations and self-affirmations, and exercises such as having the participants draw pictures of themselves, represent pretty ineffectual attempts to get the results he’s looking for. But that’s OK, from a dramatic viewpoint. It turns out that Mallon is more concerned with the healing bonds that develop between the workshop participants — and between Mark and the pregnant, prickly doctor who leads the workshop with him, Rebecca (Daria M. Sullivan) — than with anything that is happening on a medical level.
Directed by Laura Ekstrand (Vivid Stage’s artistic director), “Soft Animals” is an abstract play and production, in some ways. In a series of interludes, the four workshop participants, imaginatively choreographed by assistant director James Williams, dance as Rebecca recites medical facts. (“All babies are colorblind at birth. We only see in black and white, those first few months. Once color kicks in for us at about four months, though, we only see three colors: Red, blue and green …”) The ending is open to interpretation.
Each of the workshop participants is distinctly drawn. Emily is a cheerful, talkative ditz (her penchant for wearing a helmet, goggles and other protective gear seems like an eccentricity at first, but then we learn she needs this because of her condition). The crass, sarcastic, skeptical-with-all-this-healing-stuff Jacob is the “token angry guy” (as Emily calls him). Sabrina is an angsty, unpredictable teen. And Dylan seems lost in some distant, private world.
The medical professionals, Mark and Rebecca, have plenty of issues of their own, we find out, in their own lives and with each other.
Mallon isn’t afraid of big topics. “Soft Animals” touches on birth and death, and love and marriage, in addition to the nature of disease and healing. And while three days is not a particularly long time for a workshop, all six characters undergo major changes.
With Mallon’s more or less equal emphasis on each of the characters, though, and not a lot of time to work with — the one-act play runs for about 100 minutes, but that includes the medical-lecture-and-dance interludes, recitations by two characters of Walt Whitman’s poetry, a discussion about veterinarians, and other digressions — we don’t get to know any of the characters in great depth. And ultimately, this makes it difficult for us to become emotionally invested in them. Also, the profundity of Mallon’s ending seems a little strained, given how light much of the rest of the play has been.
Remaining performances of “Soft Animals,” at Vivid Stage in Summit, will be at 8 p.m. Oct. 6-8 and 2 p.m. Oct. 9. Visit vividstage.org.
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