The North Bay premiere of “Body Awareness” by Annie Baker is opening at Main Stage West on Sept. 6. Directed by John Shillington and Janine Sternlieb, the play stars Elijah Pinkham, Nancy Prebilich, Lydia Revelos and Zachary Tendick, and will run through Sept. 22.
Co-director Sternlieb describes the play this way:
“It’s a comedy drama that centers on four people in a town very much like Sebastopol, but in Vermont. And there’s a local college, Shirley State, where there’s a lot of conversation around what’s acceptable language: what’s PC, what’s not PC? What can you say, what can’t you say? So I think people in Sebastopol will resonate with that.”
“This is a perfect show for our town,” Shillington said, “in terms of folks with alternative lifestyles trying to be politically conscious, and sometimes tripping over themselves.”
The play takes place over five days of Body Awareness Week at Shirley State. There are four characters: Phyllis, a professor at Shirley State, who’s running Body Awareness Week; her partner, Joyce, who teaches high school; Joyce’s son Jared who may have Asperger’s. The fourth character, Frank, is their houseguest and one of the guest artists for Body Awareness Week.
“He comes in and he disrupts the equilibrium of the house because he takes nude photographs of women,” Sternlieb said. “And Phyllis is very upset about this because ‘obviously’ it’s exploitative. For her, there’s no other way to look at it.”
One of the plays central themes is about how people limit themselves with “our thinking and our judgments and our labels,” Sternlieb said, noting how our use of language — and the struggles over “politically correct” language — reflect these limitations.
“We’re always trying to get it right, to say the right thing and not to cause offense,” she said. “The character of Joyce is always trying hard not to cause offense. And her son is always saying the wrong thing — he has some of the funniest lines in the play because he says such inappropriate things.”
“We see it all the time in our world,” Sternlieb said. “How do we speak about things in respectful way, yet not be completely hampered by trying to be PC?”
“The play is just incredibly funny and real and true,” she said. “These are real characters, and this is true dialogue. Annie Baker has such an ear for dialogue … this is the way real people talk.”
“There’s a metaphor that’s set out quite early in the play,” Sternlieb said, quoting from the script: ‘“Deepak Chopra uses a really great example of flies stuck in a jar. If you keep the lid on for long enough, when you finally take it off, only a few flies are actually brave enough to leave the confines of the jar. The rest just keep flying around inside.’ So that really sets up a question for everyone: Am I going to live within these preconceived notions ideas and labels for the rest of my life or am I going to step out and look at life differently and live my life differently?”
Sternlieb is taking flight herself this week, starting a masters in theater at San Francisco State. It’s the culmination of several years of growing interest and work in theatre.
She said she’s thrilled to be co-directing with John Shillington, who she called “our brilliant local treasure.”
“John is very generous. We’ve worked together before. I was first a student of his in an acting class five years ago, and then I was his assistant director on a production of ‘Almost, Maine’ at SRJC. Then he was in a production of mine, and we’ve just stayed in touch. In his way of wanting to mentor people, he said ‘Why don’t you be my co-director on ‘Body Awareness?’’”
“It’s been a total delight working with Janine and her laser sharp ability with details,” Shillington said.
You can see the fruit of their collaboration starting next week. “Body Awareness” runs from Sept. 6 to 22 (Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 5 p.m.) at Main Stage West, 104 N. Main St. Sebastopol. Tickets: $15 to $30; Thursdays are “Pay what you will.” Reserve your tickets by telephone, 707-823-0177, or purchase them online at mainstagewest.com.