Body Awareness from Actors Theatre

It's no one's fault but my own (okay, and maybe that of the design of Actors Theatre's promo poster below) that I'd really hoped Annie Baker's Body Awareness would delve deeply into the topic of body acceptance even while being funny, moving, and well-acted.

It doesn't in particular. For example, although the character Phyllis, a psychology professor, starts to talk about the male gaze, she almost immediately gets confused and then needs to leave the stage -- partly because she's unsuccessfully thinking out loud about a largely private matter in public and partly because, at that moment, she's really only there to introduce a Body Awareness Week performance event, such as a Palestinian child refugee dance company or Vermont's premier biracial troubadour couple.

And that's not a deficiency in the script -- the issue of looksism in our culture and how those who are objectified respond to it is not the play's job to analyze, let alone to resolve. Even though Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation from last season took place at an acting class, and its events were driven by the class, I realize, looking back, that it wasn't literally about acting. It was about people and, in a way, about accepting every bit of them (which, if you're being generous, should include their bodies), and not merely in the way good actors do.

Body Awareness is like Circle in its fond, inclusive humanism: It reminds us that someone of any sex or orientation can be irrational or thoughtless in matters of the heart; that people you don't respect can still provide good advice; that the person you'd least expect can wind up being the kindest person in the building.

Baker's first professionally produced script is occasionally heavy-handed in its ideas and less than fair to its characters, but it's only an hour and a half long and features plenty of humor, too. It takes place in a small New England college town, mostly in the home that Phyllis (Amanda Melby) shares with Joyce (Maria Amorocho), a divorced high-school teacher who's in her first lesbian relationship, and Joyce's adult son, Jared (Will Hightower), who the women understandably believe might have Asperger's syndrome and who understandably resists being labeled.

In an effort to prove to his family that he has no social handicaps, Jared sets out to acquire a girlfriend and have sex, and he turns to visiting artist Frank Bonitatibus (Ian Christiansen), who's staying in their home for the week, for advice. Frank photographs female nudes in what he believes is an empowering way (Phyllis disagrees), and Joyce, who's feeling diminished by both her son and her partner, considers posing for him.

The excellent and mostly local cast, helmed by AT artistic director Matthew Wiener, overcomes a few script elements that don't make a great deal of sense (especially why Frank's there at all if Phyllis had a hand in choosing the visiting artists). Kimb Williamson's set is a detailed, cozy family residence full of love, warmth, and books -- it cannily evokes the sort of place where smart, well-meaning people with limited disposable income nurture one another.

While you're at the theater, it's time to consider springing for a season ticket package for Actors Theatre's 2012-13 season. The lineup's been announced and looks pretty cool, they make it nice and flexible for you (you don't have to commit to seeing every show on a certain night), you'll save money over buying single tickets, and your timely payment will assist the company in this stage of their effort to get back on solid financial ground.

You can also help Actors Theatre by going to Diamondbacks games! Order at that link with the indicated promotional code, and part of the ticket price will be donated to the theater company.

Body Awareness continues through Sunday, April 15, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $20.50 to $43.50, call 602-252-8497 or order tickets to Actors Theatre performances online. Student and senior discounts and same-day "rush" prices are also available.

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