Preview: Body Awareness

Two local actors talk about playing lesbian on stage this month at the Wilma

Grace Gonglewski and Mary Martello in Body Awareness (photo by Alexander Iziliaev)

Two lesbian characters stir up drama in a new play at the Wilma. Body Awareness (previews begin this week with an opening Jan. 11) sets the scene during a weekend at a fictional college in Vermont when audiences get a glimpse into the lives of a mother, her girlfriend and son as a free-spirited artist comes to town to turn everything upside down.

Two of the Philly actors – Mary Martello and Grace Gonglewski – talked to us about what it’s like starring in Annie Baker’s off-beat comedy, which got rave reviews in New York, as well as how gender and politics seem to underscore even the most romantic of relationships.

How do you portray a lesbian relationship realistically in the show?

Gonglewski: Our relationship is one of love and sexual attraction with challenges and contradictions, like any relationship, gay or straight. It is not hard to find Mary Martello super sexy and lovable. There is also an imbalance of power (typical to most relationships), which shifts during the journey of the play.

Martello: The relationship in the show is a three-year-long domestic relationship, so that’s what I portray. We have a home together and my son lives with us and we love each other. It’s the reality of that situation that I play.

What are some of the challenges your characters face?

Gonglewski: My partner’s son possibly has Aspergers Syndrome and her coddling him is hard on our relationship. He is still living at home at 21. My character wants to keep the status quo of being the top dog, so she can maintain her delusion of control and feel confident, powerful. A visitor is a catalyst for change, forcing us to rethink our relationship. My challenges include my own need for control, loss of self-confidence, self-consciousness, intellectual double speak…and in an odd way, a sort of ‘Aspergery’ problem of not quite being able to see someone else’s point of view.

Martello: Well, we live with my son who we think has Aspergers Syndrome, but has never seen a therapist about it. And because of a house guest, we are suddently facing long-term beliefs and habits that suddenly seem to be chafing us in the relationship. How do we face these things about ourselves and still continue in the relationship?

What role does comedy play in the way the characters discuss their own relationship, bodies and even gender?

Gonglewski: Truth is funny. I think if we play our roles with total sincerity, with all the sadness and despair, the audience will find it funny. Hopefully they will be able to laugh at themselves through us. The play has tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humor, very knowing and subtle. I think the sophisticated Wilma audiences will dig it.

Martello: I guess that people are funny and their foibles are even funnier, especially when they don’t know they have them. This is a honest look at a family dynamic and that’s just funny.

What drew you to these characters in the first place?

Gonglewski: I was drawn to working with the renowned (director) Annie Kaufman, and being in love with Mary Martello. I would have done any role with either impetus. That said, this particular role has elements of me that I recognize [she cringes], and it is wickedly delicious to poke fun at.

Martello: Their humanity and their vulnerability. That may actually be redundant, but the play and the characters are so real and trying so hard to make their life work that I really root for them.

This show has played in a few cities around the country already. What do you expect to bring to Philly audiences?

Gonglewski: The unique thing in this production is the astonishingly deft hand of Kaufman. She settles for nothing less than sheer reality, no commenting on the characters at all. Her direction of light and sound is just as precise. She carves every single moment, every shadow, bell, tone, flicker. With an unassuming and self-effacing banter, she meticulously sculpts minutia to get the exact effect she desires – fascinating to watch in tech, I am learning a lot. I am dying to see the effect on an audience.

Martello: It is always my intention to open hearts and minds and tickle funny bones with as much honesty and communication as possible. So I hope audiences root for these characters, as well.

Body Awareness, Jan. 11 – Feb. 5, Wilma Theatre, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824.