By Martin F. Kohn
With at least 15 productions, according to American Theatre magazine, Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” is one of the country’s most-produced plays this season. It’s easy to see why theaters like it. Set in an acting class at a civic center, it affirms the value of theater itself as a provider of insight, comfort, laughter and a sense of community.
It’s easy to see why audiences like it, too: It provides insight, comfort, laughter and a sense of community.
Actors, directors, any artists associated with such a venture “get it” from the get-go, so any staging runs the risk of drowning in too much love. Happily, that doesn’t happen in John Seibert’s production at Performance Network; neither overstated nor understated it’s just, well, stated. Audiences come away with a sense of having eavesdropped on real people they wouldn’t mind meeting after the show.
Over many short scenes, the play takes place in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont (I had to look for it in an atlas just to make sure it wasn’t real), but it could be almost anywhere. I would say anywhere, but there’s something about the place that’s characteristically New England: Except for the youngest one in the class, a 16-year-old girl, every character is originally from somewhere else. In one part of New England (Maine), they even have a special name for this: If you’re not a native, you’re “from away.”
Neither Baker (a New Englander) nor her characters make a big deal about it, but the unspoken implication is that nobody feels quite at home, not even in his or her own skin; everyone in the class, even the teacher, is seeking some kind of inclusion.
As the instructor, Marty, Terry Heck conveys a cheeriness that goes beyond the requisite teacherly encouragement; she seems a little unhappy, lonely even, although her husband, James (Mark Rademacher), is taking the class. He, too, projects a vague disconnectedness.
Similarly, the three other students in the class appear less than completely unfulfilled. Schultz (Taras Michael Los) is a divorced carpenter who thinks of himself as an artist; Theresa (Eva Rosenwald) used to act professionally – she has a certain polish that the others aren’t meant to – but now she does something else; teenager Lauren (Sarah Ann Leahy) is far from surly but carries herself with more than the typical amount of adolescent alienation.
Through theater exercises that sometimes seem absurd, they learn to be attuned to each other. Two characters carry on a dialogue that consists of two words, ackmack and goulash. In another, all pretend to be objects from one student’s childhood: a bed, a tree, a stuffed snake, a baseball glove…
Over the six-week class, the five characters stretch and open in different ways, and it’s sheer delight for the audience to take this journey with them.
Baker apportions the story lines and shining moments pretty evenly, which is all well and good, but some of the best acting is in the reacting, the way those not in the spotlight respond to the ones who are. Seibert and his cast supply a richness of detail. Set and lighting designer Daniel C. Walker provides a most believable dance studio/all-purpose room, even down to the hallway outside the fire doors. You don’t even notice Suzanne Young’s costuming choices (that’s a compliment), and Jeremy Hopgood’s sound design provides subtle background noise and a connective tissue of between-scenes music.
Together, they leave you with a sense of knowing who these characters are. As for what happens to them when the (figurative) curtain comes down, you can provide that.
‘Circle Mirror Transformation’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through May 22. $22-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org