Chester Theatre Company's 'Body Awareness': Coming to terms with mirror image

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CHESTER -- "The whole thing is a joke now," says Phyllis, a psychology professor at a small college in Vermont, late in Annie Baker's comedy, "Body Awareness," which is being given a credible, if not especially lingering, production at Chester Theatre Company.

She's talking about her weeklong Body Awareness conference, an annual event that allows its participants to check in, she says in her opening remarks, "first with ourselves and our own bodies, then with our thoughts and judgments about other people's bodies," this, she says, in a society that "encourages a real obsession with appearance."

Augmenting the conference is a series of dance and musical performances and an exhibition by a guest visual artist -- this year by Frank Bonitatibus (Bryce McKenzie), an approaching-60 photographer, whose show in the Student Union of photos of nude women is stirring controversy and diverting attention from the conference.

Frank's presence also is an issue at home where Phyllis (Caitlin McDonough-Thayer), her partner, a high school teacher named Joyce (Jennifer Rohn) and Joyce's challenging young adult son, Jared (astutely portrayed by David Rosenblatt), who works at a MacDonald's, has a passion for words and word origins and vigorously denies, despite showing all the signs, that he has Asperger's.

It doesn't help that not only is Frank staying with Phyllis and Joyce during the conference but Joyce becomes attracted to Frank's work and seriously considers posing for him.

Frank is not, as Phyllis angrily suggests at one point, trying to get into Joyce's pants. But he is, even given his own pretensions, a catalyst for thought, for self-examination and a kind of father surrogate for Jared, who considers his biological father an "imbecile."

"Body Awareness" is about how we see ourselves and how what we see shapes our relationships, especially with those who are closest to us.

The writing is literate, the acting smooth and resourceful, especially in the case of Rosenblatt's Jared, a young man who, for all his contradictions and denials about his condition, shows more purity about who he is, especially at the end, than either his mother or her partner.

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