It's a disconcerting and thrilling experience to watch human behavior under a microscope. Revelations that would pass unnoticed in everyday life are clear, seemingly routine conversations have huge stakes. "Body Awareness," the first play by rising playwright Annie Baker to be produced in Chicago, puts its characters under the theatrical microscope, making us care about four fascinating, flawed people while letting us see the minute ways they sabotage their own happiness. Though the play is brief in length and low on plot, it's moving and absorbing, particularly in Benjamin Thiem's sensitively acted production. It's easy to see why Baker's already so acclaimed.
Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) is a professor at small college in Vermont, running "Body Awareness Week," and losing control of the proceedings: she didn't pay attention to all of the artists she invited. When she finds out that Frank (Joe Jahraus) takes pictures of nude women, she ignores his contention that they are non-exploitative and condemns him. Unfortunately, he's the artist staying in the home she shares with her partner Joyce (Barb Stasiw) and Joyce's son Jared (Eric Burgher), who appears to have Asperger's, despite his vehement protests to the contrary. Frank's stay causes tempers to flare and people to start the painful process of growth. It may not be groundbreaking material, but it's all presented with uncommon intelligence and heart.
While the production looks and feels completely natural, a lot of skill went into it. Baker subtly highlights important moments, giving the effect of reality with the volume just slightly raised. (Though the ending does paste an abrupt and surprisingly happy resolution on an unresolved situation.) And the ensemble is simply wonderful, effortlessly inhabiting the characters and relationships and keeping the audience enthralled, with Stasiw's performance particularly heartbreaking. It's not perfect, but it's a lovely, moving show, and reason to hope for even better work from Baker in the future.