By Larry Taylor/Garden Grove Journal
What starts out as theater games in an acting class soon becomes about the real lives of the characters in the fascinating “Circle Mirror Transformation,” now in a fine production at South Coast Repertory.
Written by Annie Baker, the play had a successful, prize-winning run in New York last season. The originating director, Sam Gold, is also in charge here, and the fine cast is a blend of SCR veterans and returnees with one standout newcomer.
Baker’s story deals with five diverse people in a Vermont community center’s Creative Drama class. The play”s name comes from a theater game that involves a group gathered in a circle, mirroring each others’ movements and then transforming them, verbally revealing their perceptions.
As well, in other activities, class members pose as inanimate objects, such as trees, beds and baseball gloves.
They also pretend to be one another, relating the perceived life story of each. In another assignment, after writing out their darkest secrets, they listen as their anonymous confessions are read by others If this sounds confusing, it really isn’t. But it is sometimes very funny and also very involving. Through these, and other learning exercises, inner and outer lives are revealed. Soon the audience is caught up in each personal drama.
Group leader, Marty (Linda Gehringer), is the free-spirited leader. She has persuaded her husband, James (Brian Kerwin), also a teacher, to take the class to widen his experience. Both actors are most effective. She is pleasant but clearly in charge, while Kerwin’s James is bewildered at first by the games but enthusiastically digs in.
Slowly, during the six-week duration of the course, it becomes apparent that the couple’s ostensible happiness may not be what it seems.
Among the others, Theresa (the likable Marin Hinkle) is a former actress who has recently left the competitiveness of New York City to return and refresh her talent and recover from a broken relationship.
Attractive and outgoing, she soon becomes involved with someone in class, considerably complicating her life.
Schultz (an excellent Arye Gross) is a lonely carpenter, recovering from a recent divorce.
He hopes to meet new people and get on with his life. At the beginning, he leaps at his first chance for a relationship, a big mistake as it turns out.
The question mark in the class is Lauren (Lily Holleman in her SCR debut). A high school student, she takes the class, hoping to increase her chances in the upcoming school production of “West Side Story.”
She reluctantly takes part in the exercises and at one point questions the effectiveness of the class. So aloof at first, she often pulls her sweatshirt over her head and huddles in the corner, looking like a turtle.
In her touching performance, Holleman subtly shows Lauren’s progression. Ultimately, she has probably learned more than anyone. In a final exercise, she and Schultz are told to improvise a conversation that would take place if they met 10 years in the future.
In this poignant exchange, things about the class participants become clear which, previously, were only hinted at.
Costume design by Angela Balogh Colin and set design by David Zinn are right on target.
Colorful tee-shirts, sweat clothes, leg warmers, worn among the hodgepodge of gym equipment and wall mirrors make it so the audience can almost smell the atmosphere.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” can be seen through Jan. 30 at SCR’s Julianne Argyros Stage in Costa Mesa.