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STAGE REVIEW

Tension and tenderness alongside art and academia

Richard Snee as Frank and Paula Plum as Joyce in “Body Awareness.’’ Richard Snee as Frank and Paula Plum as Joyce in “Body Awareness.’’ (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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You can’t really go wrong by seeing any of the three plays by Annie Baker currently onstage in Boston.

Each offers its own puzzles and its own pleasures. Time (and wallets) permitting, serious theatergoers should try to catch all three, because Baker’s distinctive voice is worth hearing. The playwright does not garland her works with Hallmark moments, yet each of the plays has a way of tugging on the heart.

My candidate for the deepest and richest one of the trio is “Body Awareness,’’ currently at SpeakEasy Stage Company in a production directed by Paul Daigneault and featuring a quartet of outstanding performers — Paula Plum, Adrianne Krstansky, Richard Snee, and newcomer Gregory Pember — who meet one definition of good acting: They don’t seem as if they’re acting at all.

Of the three works that are part of the Shirley, VT Plays Festival devoted to Baker’s work, “Body Awareness’’ is the one that evokes academic life within the fictional college town that gives the festival its name. Anyone who has spent time in Amherst, Mass., where Baker grew up, or in the counterculture quadrants of Vermont, is likely to smile at the sidelong glimpses we get of this Birkenstock bohemia.

However, Baker is after more than laughs, and her characters are not cartoons. What makes “Body Awareness’’ work is that she takes their dilemmas seriously.

Plum plays Joyce, a high school teacher involved in a long-term relationship with Phyllis (Krstansky), a professor at Shirley State. Scenes of their home life alternate with Phyllis’s earnest, awkward introductions of performers at the university’s “Body Awareness Week.’’ Phyllis has a weakness for pedantic questions like: “How do we observe ourselves, and other people, without participating in the legacy of image-ownership?’’

Or maybe they’re not so pedantic after all, because the question of self-image — of how we see ourselves and, thus, define ourselves — is playing out in the house Phyllis and Joyce share.

The women are anxious about the increasingly strange behavior of Joyce’s 21-year-old son Jared, who walks around sucking on an electric toothbrush, when he isn’t poring over the Oxford English Dictionary. Phyllis is convinced — and the worried Joyce is half-convinced — that Jared has Asperger syndrome. He furiously rejects their diagnosis, contending the women are trying to label him a “retard.’’

There is another source of tension between the women: Frank (Snee), a photographer known for his nude female portraits who has come to stay in their home as guest artist. Frank has a relaxed, worldly confidence, and no qualms whatsoever about his work.

Phyllis despises him immediately, calling him a “crazy pervert’’ and his work the very embodiment of the exploitative “male gaze’’ that “Body Awareness Week’’ is designed to combat. Joyce, however, is attracted to Frank and intrigued by his photographs — which Phyllis sees as a double betrayal. When Joyce decides she wants to let Frank photograph her, seeing it as “freeing,’’ Phyllis delivers an ultimatum: Pose for him and our relationship is over. Meanwhile, Jared (Pember) sees Frank as someone who can give him some tips about sex to help him lose his virginity.

Pember, a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory, holds his own with his seasoned costars, delivering a performance that eschews easy answers about what Jared may be suffering from. (He also has many of the play’s funniest lines.) Snee (who is married to Plum in real life) brings to his portrayal of Frank an imperturbability that stops short of smugness and illustrates why, from the moment he arrives in that stressed-out household, the photographer serves as both lodestar and lightning rod.

The role of Phyllis is a challenging one: In the wrong hands, the character could slide into one-dimensional caricature. But Krstansky’s Phyllis is more than the sum of her academic jargon; the actress reveals the layer of insecurity beneath the character’s dogmatism, and, below that, the genuine love for the soulmate who she fears is slipping away.

The ever-skillful, ever-subtle Plum builds a portrait of Joyce, nuance by nuance, capturing the quiet exhilaration of a woman who just might be acting on her own desires — and really seeing herself — for the first time. By the end of “Body Awareness,’’ there is the gratifying sense that no matter who is taking her picture or whose bed she is sharing, Joyce is nobody’s object.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

BODY AWARENESS

Play by Annie Baker

Directed by: Paul Daigneault

Sets, Cristina Todesco. Lights, Jeff Adelberg. Costumes, Bobby Frederick Tilley II. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Nov. 20. Tickets $30-$55, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com