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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Theatre review: Body Awareness doesn’t spend enough time in the grey

Empathy is at the forefront of this family dramedy that wraps a little too tidily

There is such a gap of logic inside Annie Baker’s Body Awareness that you could easily drive a Ben & Jerry’s delivery truck through it. But one supposes that hole is necessary to navigate the often polarized arguments Baker lays out inside her 90-minute comedy.

It is Body Awareness Week at the fictional Shelley State College in Vermont. Among the many events psychology professor Phyllis has organized is an exhibition by celebrated photographer Frank Bonitatibus. Despite being the organizer of the week-long happenings, Phyllis is shocked and offended to learn the photos are female nudes. She is equally surprised to discover Frank is bunking at the family home while he is in town.

It becomes an obvious set-up for inevitable sparks in a household already dealing with the violent outbursts of 21-year old Jared, the son of her partner Joyce. Turns out Jared may have Aspergers, and he is none too pleased with this potential diagnosis.

As with many dysfunctional family dramedies, there is a lot of sparring between characters. Phyllis and Frank fight over the social and artistic integrity of his photos. Phyllis, Jared, and Joyce clash over his diagnosis and behaviour. And Phyllis battles Joyce in her contemplation to pose for Frank.

As you can see, there is a lot of fighting with Phyllis at its core, and sometimes Suleka Mathew struggles with the heavy load she has been given.

While the arguments are primarily black-and-white, Baker does give some relief with Joyce, who occupies much of the middle ground. But while Joyce may be the embodiment of potential change, she is overshadowed by the extremes happening around her. To her credit, Jennifer Copping does the best as someone trapped in the centre and whose sole purpose seems to be the unrealistic desire for everyone to get along.

As family interloper Frank, John Murphy carefully navigates what could easily be just a creepy guy with a camera. Instead, he manages to find a unique balance, which makes his character whole. He is at his best when dealing one-on-one with Jared.

Zac Scott is almost unrecognizable as the young man with Aspergers. Photo by Shimon Photo.
Zac Scott (left) is almost unrecognizable as the young man with Aspergers. Photo by Shimon Photo.

The most significant transformation, though, belongs to Zac Scott, who is almost unrecognizable. Both physically and emotionally, Scott has captured the essence of this young man on the autism spectrum. Expected to make significant swings, Scott is believable in portraying both Jake’s anger and frustration.

David Roberts has created a stunner set design with giant louvred photographs defining the two play spaces. It is beautifully lit by Celeste English, especially in the early morning, as life awakens in the household.

Cast the logic aside as I did, and some compelling questions are being asked in Body Awareness. Much of it deals with the concept of empathy, and not just from the young man with Aspergers. And while there is definitely transformation and growth, in the end, Baker makes it all a little too tidy. We all know life, and especially family isn’t like that.

Body Awareness by Annie Baker. Directed by Aaron Craven. A Mitch and Murry Production. On stage at Studio 16 (1555 W 7th Ave, Vancouver) until October 20. Visit for tickets and information.

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