To my ears and eyes, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation is about psychotherapy posing as a community center acting class. The double-edged irony is that by the time class ends, the four students and their well-intentioned instructor have suffered tremendous blows to their mental health … and they haven’t learned much about acting.
At Fells Point Corner Theatre, where Baker’s play is running through April 8th, this often makes for discomfiting drama—which is not to say uncompelling. Baker is a generous writer who probes her characters with great insight and humor, and the production, perceptively directed by Patrick Martyn, is sharp all around. But I do not know to what extent the play’s ironies are intentional and to what extent I’m projecting—as a former actor myself—my own disapproval of irresponsible acting teachers.
This particular teacher, Marty (short for “Martha”), epitomizes the slightly daffy, grandmotherly types we like to imagine in small towns such as Shirley, Vermont (an invented community where Baker sets many of her plays). She is patient, softhearted, and—as played by Lynda McClary—possessed with a wonderful voice that exudes gentle authority. We never learn how she is qualified to teach acting, even to such obvious amateurs, yet only once does someone think to ask, and the momentary doubt is never raised again.
Marty leads her students through a few standard exercises aimed at building their listening skills and loosening inhibitions. The bulk of class, however, amounts to soul searching in the dark. The characters mold each other—at times literally—into memories both happy and painful, acting out not imaginary circumstances but their own neuroses—one woman watches two classmates role-play a conversation between herself and her possessive ex-boyfriend; another student, only 16, directs a “scene” between her emotionally distant parents. They also take turns speaking in each other’s voices, sometimes praising and sometimes presuming to analyze, as when one student announces that another fears becoming his father.
These incursions into the self appear “truthful,” but they belong in the office of a licensed therapist, not a rec room full of strangers. Unsurprisingly and all too often, the participants break down in tears, spilling secrets in an uncontrolled flood of emotions that has nothing to do with the craft—let alone art—of acting. Yet so unprepared is Marty for the inevitable crash, one can only conclude this is the first class she has ever taught. Perhaps this allows us to sympathize with her, even as she politely urges her students to rip off their scars. She is not a bad person, but she should be barred from the profession of teaching.
Fair or not, what must disturbed me about Circle Mirror Transformation is I was never sure how Baker felt … which proves only that she is an artist and not a polemicist. Though I would pretend otherwise, a part of me craves reassurance that plays and writers I admire confirm my worldview and share my biases. Circle Mirror Transformation does not offer this; instead, it withholds judgment and seeks for the truth in each of its lonely souls. As do Martyn and his excellent cast, led by McClary and Thom Sinn, who plays Marty’s husband, James, a disarmingly good-natured man whose apparent contentment dissolves a bit with each class.
The other students are more visibly wounded. Larry Malkus is marvelous as Schultz, a divorcé with the awkwardness and nervous grin of a boy just entering adolescence, and Zarah Rautell plumbs similar depths in Theresa, an overeager transplant from New York City and the only member of the class with anything resembling an acting resume. Schultz and Theresa fall quickly for each other. “You have really alive eyes,” he tells her, as do Malkus and Rautell, who skillfully trace the arc of a miscarried relationship from its comically sweet beginning through an unexpected burst of sexuality before the bloom fades.
The fifth character is Lauren, played by Kelly Fuller, who wraps herself in a purple hoodie at the slightest embarrassment but ultimately proves wise beyond her years. Fuller opens Lauren to us with exquisite restraint, so that when her reflexive teenage sullenness finally disappears, her transformation seems as natural as growth. Which I think is the secret of Circle Mirror—young and old wear different shells and so are vulnerable differently. The power to hope is Lauren’s greatest strength, for her future still seems endlessly possible. Marty, James, Theresa, and Schultz can also transform themselves, of course, and the play’s ending suggests as much … I’m just not sure they have the will to shake off their armor, calcified by decades of humble disappointments.