Sexy topical questions add sheen to the surface of Annie Baker's Body Awareness, a Bay Area premiere now at the Aurora: To what extent is feminism still politically relevant? When is our perception of objectification and abuse just a product of excessive sensitivity? How do we deal when we can't neatly categorize someone's sexuality? And what's the difference between a psychological disorder and a mere quirk of personality?
But the meat of this powerful production is more universal: the clash between how our loved ones see us and how we see ourselves. Much more important than zeitgeisty anxieties is this unsettling evergreen, a question underpinning great drama since the Greeks: What if our loved ones are the people least likely to accept us for who we want to be?
And what if the best we all can do is try to keep living together anyway?
Baker cannily sets up a three-person family dynamic to maximize the comic possibilities of all these heavy themes. Phyllis (Amy Resnick, who makes severity endearing) is a professor at "Shirley State College" in Vermont, where she leads initiatives like renaming "Eating Disorder Week" as "Body Awareness Week" and perks up at the very possibility of calling someone out on his "male gaze." Her partner Joyce (a beautifully restrained Jeri Lynn Cohen) is both pathetic and comic in her victimhood: She was sexually molested by her father, she denied her sexuality for years and even married a man, and now she tries to manage her feelings by saying things like, "I'm feeling very angry," or, "Sorry, that sounded judgmental." Joyce's 21-year-old son, Jared (an aptly adolescent Patrick Russell), still lives with his mom, works at McDonald's, reads the OED in his spare time, and prizes his electric toothbrush like it's a security blanket — none of which, he insists, could possibly mean he has Asperger's.
Despite Jared's violent eruptions (which often include threats to kill his mother) and his fondness for what Phyllis calls "exploitative" porn, the three have managed to eke out an uneasy balance, largely because of Joyce's insistently calm voice, her willingness to forgive and coddle, and, amusingly, her organic winter vegetable soup. That is, until Frank (Howard Swain) shows up. He's a guest artist for Body Awareness Week, but his photographs of naked women and girls are so dubiously intentioned, Phyllis believes, that they compromise the entire event. But perhaps even more threatening is Frank's eminent sensuality, which Swain communicates with his every sumptuous inhalation. As he unravels the family's insistence on intellect over carnality, long-simmering conflicts about politics, sex, and identity bubble to the surface, forcing each to say, or discover, who he or she really is.
Under the astute direction of Joy Carlin, Cohen gives a star turn. So precisely does she render each hesitation, every nervous laugh, that we can tell what her Joyce really wants — to be photographed in the nude herself, by Frank — long before she says it. It's a desire she can't intellectualize, or even explain in words, despite Phyllis' insistence that she do so. But with Cohen's performance, Joyce doesn't have to. We see from her pleading eyes that her real need is for tenderness. She reveals a wonderful truth when she finally says, after cataloguing her every bodily flaw while undressing for her photo shoot, "Oh, who gives a fuck, right?" She doesn't need Jared to stop calling her stupid for not having read Crime and Punishment. It doesn't matter if Phyllis doesn't stop looking down on her for not having a Ph.D. or for failing to fully commit to a certain brand of feminism. She doesn't even need Frank to take her picture or flirt with her. All she needs is tenderness for herself.
Body Awareness ends with few of its issues resolved. It doesn't tell us how to parent better, or love better, and the line between exploitation and overreaction is left up to the audience to draw. But that feels right for a play that gives a fresh and authentic look at the dysfunctional American family. We don't change so much, Baker suggests, as we try to keep on living together, hopefully with a little more awareness than we had before.