LOOKING DEEP INSIDE Themselves and each other.
"Are we going to do any real acting?" complains the one teenager enrolled in a small Vermont community center's drama class. She doesn't see how the class exercises — lying on the floor and counting, telling other students' life stories, writing secrets on scraps of paper — are teaching her much about the stage. And it's true that in Circle MirrorTransformation, Annie Baker's award-winning and oft-produced 2008 comedy, much of what the students learn does indeed transcend the theater. David Currier directs this deceptively simple play in an impeccably cast, quietly poignant production for Mad Horse, at Lucid Stage.
Class is held in a modest mirror-walled studio (audiences sitting house center can enjoy seeing themselves as part of the gestalt); glimpses of finger-painted kids' art out in the hallway reinforce the humble comfort of their setting (Christopher Price's thoughtful set design). Here, earth-mothery instructor Marty (Maureen Tannian Butler) guides the explorations of just four students, one of whom is her husband, James (Payne Ratner), a sensitive, self-actualized fifty-something man in Birkenstocks. The other guy in the group is earnest, awkward, recently-divorced Schultz (Brent Askari), who quickly develops a thing for Theresa (Janice Gardner), a poised young woman who moved from New York after a break-up (and who has actually done some acting). Finally, and most quietly, there's Lauren (Olwyn Moxhay), a watchful high school student who has the most straight-forward expectations of the class: she wants to play Maria in her school's production of West Side Story.
Everyone, including Lauren, has something other than acting to contend with in this room. As Circle follows them in their often silly-seeming exercises, the play's real subject is the difficult revelations that they share in the process, along with the intimacies that form and shift between them as they do. This is subtle stuff, utterly dependent on its actors' depth and sensitivity, and I'm happy to report that Currier's cast is superb — their characters are at once recognizable, entertaining types and rich, affecting individuals. Butler's Marty is mellifluously enabling of her students, sometimes registering a carefully tolerant disapproval, and she's especially good when the teacher role cracks under the pressure of a sense of competition, anger, or hurt. She is well matched energetically in Ratner's James, who totally nails that particularly self-aware Vermont-via-California charisma; he is intuitive, robust, and vain. As Theresa, Gardner nicely balances confidence and insecurity, and she's paired with Askari, who does a restrained job with Schultz's funny-but-endearing awkwardness, especially in letting us see the punishing self-knowledge the man has about his lack of social ease.
Special accolades go to Moxhay, a Portland High School junior, for her exquisitely observant and sensitive Lauren. In her hands, Lauren's sullen deadpan and monotone are pitch perfect, and she also opens up the teenager beautifully to let her innate sympathy and compassion peek through – when she does allow a rare smile or laugh, the sudden, bright candor of it is dazzling. And perhaps most importantly, and most impressively, she manages to convey the sense that Lauren, always so closely watching these four adults struggle with their pain, is silently collecting everything, even if she doesn't yet understand it.