Whip Hubley as Frank, Moira Driscoll as Joyce, Parker Hough as Jared and Courtney Cook as Phyllis in “Body Awareness.” Photo by Kat Moraros Photography

As a welcome addition to the usual summer selection of large-scale productions around the state, the first annual Portland Theater Festival is trying hard to prove that small can still be beautiful. 

The organizers have said they hope to present diverse and challenging work with a “social leaning.” Potential ticket buyers who initially might feel an urge to brace themselves after that description, though, should know that at least the first offering of the three-play festival is quite engaging and funny, while also suggesting more than a few avenues for further thought.

Annie Baker’s 2008 play “Body Awareness” takes place in the Vermont home of partners Phyllis, a psychology professor, and Joyce, a high school cultural studies teacher. Joyce’s young adult son Jared, a McDonald’s employee who exhibits some signs of autism spectrum disorder, lives with them.

Phyllis is heading up Body Awareness Week on campus, and she has offered an invitation for Frank, a visiting artist who specializes in nude photography of women, to stay with them. This seems to have not been a good idea for a family already on edge from coping with Jared as well as their own personal and professional challenges.

An imaginative confluence of themes surrounding the character’s interactions with each other’s public and private identities fuel scenes of both touching warmth and striking anger in this 90-minute play. These scenes are broken up by Phyllis’ brief academic lectures on the state of such things as “image ownership” in the broader culture.

The play is good at bringing a satirical view of current academic discourse with some intensely revealing personal moments, all well conceived and executed by a strong cast under the direction of local powerhouse Sally Wood.

Courtney Cook is the nearly stressed-out academic Phyllis who’s not afraid to throw a few barbs at her partner, her son or their house guest. But in some truly tender scenes with Jared and Joyce, Cook brings her character affectingly close to her nearly defenseless self.

Moira Driscoll brings her soulful eyes and comic sense of timing to have her Joyce mediate conflicts while unraveling one of her own, regarding her temptation to pose for Frank. She evokes normality in a play that dances around the question of what that really is.

A local talent with a stellar resume, Whip Hubley makes one wonder just a bit if suspicions that Frank might be a sleaze are at least partially correct. Comedy wins out, though, in scenes where he conducts a dinner ritual or gives Jared rather explicit advice on how to please a date.

Parker Hough is edgily endearing as a self-proclaimed auto-didact Jared who amusingly suffers the “imbeciles” around him while jarringly exploding at those who get too close to the bone in addressing his apparent condition. Hough matches his character’s unpredictability with some signs of hope just below the tough surface.

The festival continues with two more plays that also promise to challenge and entertain audiences all the way into the first week of September.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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