“Circle Mirror Transformation” is a Late Summer Treasure

Annie Baker is one of the most preeminent playwrights working today. She is the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for “The Flick” in 2014, which was seen last year in a very good production at Cohoes Music Hall presented by Creative License) and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2017. Chester Theatre Company has produced two excellent productions of her work, “Body Awareness” in 2013 and “The Aliens” in 2018, and is now returning to her work with her first great success, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” running through this Sunday, 8/20. It is the last production of their 2023-24 season, which is the first for their new Co-Producing Artistic Directors James Barry and Tara Franklin, and it is directed by the previous Artistic Director and director of “The Aliens,” Daniel Kramer.

Hero Marguerite, Joel Ripka, Tara Franklin, Corinna May, Alex Draper/Andrew Greto

Ms. Baker, an Amherst native, has set a number of plays in the fictional town of Shirley, VT, and “Circle Mirror Transformation” takes place there as well. It is set in a community arts center where Marty (Corinna May) has been granted the opportunity to teach an adult beginning acting class. She has assembled a mixed group of participants, from high school student Lauren (Hero Marguerite) to Theresa (Tara Franklin), who has spent a few years in the city but is a recent transplant to Shirley, to Schultz (Joel Ripka), a furniture craftsman and has even roped her husband James (Alex Draper) in. Four students are not promising for an acting class, but it’s a large cast for Chester, which usually has plays with three or fewer for its season. Interestingly and irregularly, the teacher, Marty, will be participating in the exercises that make up the class.

Hero Marguerite, Corinna May, Tara Franklin, Alex Draper, Joel Ripken/Andrew Greto

The class will take place over six weeks’ time, and we are keyed into that detail by a stagehand who updates a whiteboard downstage left throughout the course of the show. When we first encounter these characters, they are all lying out on the floor, attempting to count to 10. They need to Count 1 to 10, but if two people say the number at the same time, they need to start from the beginning again. “The point is to be totally present. To not get in your head and second-guess yourself. Or the people around you.”

There are many other games that bring these characters to life, and sometimes we see their characters through others’ portrayals of them. A second game has the individuals telling each other’s stories so Lauren plays Schultz and James plays Marty. It’s a fascinating device on Baker’s part to use these monologues spoken by others to tell us so much about her people.

Another game has the actors use the others on stage to create a scene from their childhood, with other actors playing their parents’ furniture in their childhood bedrooms. This game seems dangerous to me, but probably most problematic for this group, which has a married couple, a minor, and a pair who have begun seeing each other and rather contentiously split up, is the revealing of secrets. Each person writes down a secret and they pass them around and have others read their secrets. This becomes a guessing game for the audience, and there are a couple that are glaringly obvious (at least I think so!), but there are bound to be a large number in the audience who might not agree with you about who wrote what. It’s a delicious mystery that can spark much discussion on your ride home.

Hero Marguerite, Corinna May, Tara Franklin, Alex Draper, Joel Ripken/Andrew Greto

These games reveal a lot about everyone on stage and the town they live in, but we also learn an enormous amount from their dialogue and their body language in communicating with each other. Marty and Theresa’s shared girlishness or Lauren’s diffidence when questioned directly and Schultz’s defensive combativeness are vivid in flashes of their physical life during breaks in the class.

Corinna May, who has been so great in so many Berkshire Theatre Group productions, “Shirley Valentine” and “Seascape” spring immediately to mind, plays one of her finest, minutely crafted individuals in Marty, and we feel her idealism and heartbreak. Alex Draper as her husband James, has a shambling charm that sneaks up on you until it surprises you with its wallop. Tara Franklin (superb in “Tiny Beautiful Things”) embodies the enthusiastic young woman who would love to lose herself in art and might not realize her powerful effect. Joel Ripka returns to Chester, where he has been so good in so many plays but especially great in “Every Brilliant Thing,” and he offers a conflicted role as Schultz. As with all of Baker’s creations, our attraction to Schultz becomes more complicated the more we listen to him and learn about him. It is a deeply compassionate performance. Perhaps best of all is Hero Marguerite as the High School junior Lauren. I found myself constantly checking in on her character to see how she reacts to her classmates and their exercises. It is a beautifully natural and tender portrayal that grows in stature throughout the course of the play and shines in the final scene.

I have heard on a podcast that Annie Baker recorded conversations as a girl and transcribed them. Her powers of observation are keenly present here in her first breakout off-Broadway hit, which played at Playwrights Horizons in 2009 with an all-star cast of Reed Birney, Deirdre O’Connell, Peter Friedman, Tracee Chimo, and Heidi Schreck. It was directed by Sam Gold and went on to win the 2010 Obie Award for Best New American Play.

The play takes place in a rehearsal room designed by Juliana von Haubrich, and it’s equipped with a dance barre, mirror, and exercise ball. The room has great angles where the mirror points upstage but doesn’t reflect the audience, and the door, which is the only entrance and exit into the room, is given prominence upstage left.

Kramer’s production does great credit to this great play’s storied history and adds to Chester’s. The cast is superlative, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was especially gratified that Marguerite and Ripka shared the final scene. Their interchange, where they imagine themselves meeting each other on the street 10 years into the future, is ineffably beautiful, delicately played to perfection and a haunting end to this wonderful play.

“Circle Mirror Transformation” runs through 8/20 at Chester Theatre Company. Tickets: www.chestertheatre.org or 413-354-7770

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