Yelling gibberish and embodying a baseball glove are among the assignments within a quirky acting class in Annie Baker’s kooky if polarizing 2009 Off-Broadway comedy “Circle Mirror Transformation,” currently receiving an excellent local premiere at the Dayton Playhouse courtesy of Young at Heart Players, a senior-focused troupe founded by Fran Pesch celebrating its 15th anniversary.
Over the course of six summer weeks inside a windowless dance studio in Shirley, Vermont, five people attempt to connect by way of humorous, eye-opening theater games built to expose, entice and entertain. Counting to 10 in an attempt to be “totally present” or acting like a stuffed snake in order to conjure the feeling of being in a childhood bedroom develop as fascinating, playful exercises intended to stretch abilities and vulnerabilities. Some audience members might be perturbed by the detached nature of Baker’s stop-and-start structure, including the constant use of blackouts, but her choices bolster the fantastic realism she establishes from the outset even if the majority of the scenes, which are accented with pauses and improvisation, could be fodder for a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Even so, Baker, the recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her comedy “The Flick,” upholds the perspective of theater games as an expressive guide to understanding how strangers can become friends and gain new perspectives in their lives and the lives of others.
This fast-moving premiere, deftly directed with impressive, character-conscious timing by Annie Pesch and incorporating onstage seating, features a first-rate cast. As drama instructor Marty, Cheryl Mellen is an effortlessly encouraging and motivating presence staunchly proud of redefining the expectations of what an acting class can and should be. Finances and family drama get under Marty’s skin, but Mellen astutely showcases the light and dark sides within the character, particularly as her world comes crashing down late in the play. As Marty’s husband James, who only seems to be in the class to help his wife reach the required number of students, David Gaylor provides amiable support as an eager classmate willing to assist where needed. Megan Cooper is outstanding as the multilayered Theresa, an actress who left New York City to return to Vermont to be near her ailing parents. Conveying glamour, elegance, wit, a tinge of despair, and an emotionally scarred past with ample magnetism, Cooper strikingly illuminates Theresa’s desire for a better, meaningful future. As divorced carpenter Schultz, a timid soul who probably signed up for the class just to meet women, Steve Strawser offers a very endearing and honest portrait of a good-natured man simply yearning for more. Straswer is particularly strong when Schultz attempts to save Marty and James’ marriage and is given the cold shoulder by Theresa. As quiet, reserved high school junior Lauren, Jordan Norgaard strikingly evolves from introverted loner to confident contributor.
In addition to receiving the Obie Award for Best New American Play, “Circle Mirror Transformation” was named one of the Top 10 plays of 2009 by The New York Times and The New Yorker. Baker’s acclaimed material is more interesting than engaging, but a worthwhile look at unconventional unity nonetheless.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” continues through June 12 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Remaining performances are June 11 at 8 p.m. and June 12 at 2 p.m. The play is performed in 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors/ students. Seating is general admission both onstage and off. Tickets may be purchased with cash or check only. For more information, call (937) 654-0400 or visit online at www.youngatheartplayers.com. Patrons are advised the show contains some strong language and sensitive topics not suitable for younger audiences.