The support group that’s been meeting weekly at the noisy Buddhist Center in New York City for seven years calls itself the Fearless Warriors, although its half dozen members are anything but. Each suffered a terrible trauma, usually in childhood, and in that respect at least, newcomer Thea certainly fits in: Her mother was killed in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie when she was six. She joins a group that engages in rituals, exercises and mutual support in hopes of healing.
Given all the trauma the characters lived through, it seems odd that “The Fears,” a new play written by Emma Sheanshang and produced by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, is most effective for its gentle satire and quirky comedy; some of the funniest moments are courtesy of the sound design! As enjoyable as these touches are, the play is ultimately too superficial and familiar to feel fully satisfying. Other plays have been more insightful about trauma. And group therapy or group dynamics have been more freshly explored in such plays as Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds” and Annie Baker’s ‘Circle Mirror Transformation.”
“The Fears” functions largely as a collection of portraits, lightly etched. Because Thea (Kerry Bishé) is new, the others explain the group’s often obscure exercises to her, and thus to the audience. So, for example, when in tense moments, one character says to another “Maybe you should plant a tree,” Thea is eventually told that “tree” is an acronym for “ Take a breath…relax…exist…examine.” Thea remains the most skeptical that healing for her (or anyone) is possible; she believes that trauma is intrinsic to human civilization, and has worked obsessively on an elaborate historical timeline to prove it. (Sample: “Narmer, first Egyptian Pharaoh, introduced social inequality, warfare. But that couldn’t happen without the invention of grinding in 400,000 BC which allowed people to make seed cakes which meant men weren’t needed to hunt and could leave home for long periods and fight wars…”)
Maddie Corman portrays Maia, who became involved in the group because of her own traumas but now leads it, having taken over from Sunam, who started the group (and apparently the Buddhist center as well), but left a few months ago to run the center in Majorca. Maia hits a small gong to begin each session. She then acts something like a therapist, mostly making small murmurs of affirmation. Another member, Fiz (Mehran Khaghani), tells Rosa (Natalie Woolams-Torres) he has decoded Maia murmurs: She’s in love with Mark (Carl Hendrick Louis)
Fiz: She’s always like, “Mmm…” to him.
Rosa: Mmm is like all she says.
Fiz: There’s “mmm – I don’t agree” and “mmm – you’re a twit” This is like [flirtatiously] “Mmm, Mark…mmm mmm mmm – ”
Over the course of the five weekly sessions that unfold, there are a few twists and revelations. But we learn just bits and pieces about the characters — Mark is an unsuccessful actor who works as a waiter; Rosa is a mother; it wasn’t completely clear to me what the other five do – and even less about their traumas, with the exception of Thea and then Fiz. (“I was raped by my father from age eleven to thirteen. Then I told my mother, and she said I was deranged, started screaming and hitting me. The police came and she told them I attacked her – they put me in juvey…”) Others hint at child abuse and incest. They explain that they don’t talk directly about it, that they’re supposed to stay “in the present.” But we’re meant to understand that the traumas have affected their every living moment, and, just in case we don’t understand that, there are one or two unfortunate moments when a character theatrically freaks out with no discernible triggers (part of the mostly unimpressive staging by director Dan Algrant.)
The often satirical treatment of the characters never feels meanspirited, and the actors – especially Natalie Woolams-Torres and Mehran Khaghani — work hard to create vivid characters from the sketchy portraits in the script. But I somehow found it more difficult to empathize with these characters than I have with the traumatized in other plays. I began to wonder the point of “The Fears.” Could the humor be a way to make sweeter the guidance on healing in the play, and thus enable us to absorb it more readily? There are several suggestions some of the characters make (especially Maia) that sound worth trying: Think what those who hurt you might themselves have suffered that caused them to behave this way; or picture them as a vulnerable child. In other words, are we meant to tune out the metaphorical “noise” of the play in the way that the characters tune out the literal noise of New York City. Throughout “The Fears,” we hear drilling, trash collecting, foul-mouthed conversations from the open window, overly cheerful conversations through the wall from the Buddhist Center. (Kudos and appreciation to sound designer Jane Shaw!) Maybe the literal noise is itself a metaphor for the difficulty of finding peace in the present day. Or maybe, all that noise is just funny.
Signature Theater Center through July 9, 2023
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Written by Emma Sheanshang
Directed by Dan Algrant
Scenic design by Jo Winiarski, Costume design by David C. Robinson, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, sound design by Jane Shaw
Cast: Maddie Corman as Maia, Kerry Bishé as Thea, Natalie Woolams-Torres as Rosa, Jess Gabor at Katie, Mehran Khaghani as Fiz, Carl Hendrick Louis as Mark and Robyn Peterson as Suzanne
photos by Daniel-Rader