On one hand, Annie Baker's critically acclaimed Circle Mirror Transformation feels quite contemporary, with its numerous short blackout scenes and character-driven narrative. On the other hand, there's silence -- the innumerable short, medium and long dialogue pauses Baker insists on in her script, in seeming defiance of the 21st-century imperative to give us more, faster, all the time.
Indeed, most of this 2009 play about a creative drama teacher and her four adult students in small-town Vermont seems to consist of no words being said. In the middle of one scene, in fact, the stage is left empty for nearly 30 seconds -- an eternity in any kind of theater.
What's Baker up to? Jesse Berger, who is directing Pittsburgh Public Theater's local-premiere production, says Circle Mirror is about the importance of "the minutiae of life."
"How I say 'um,' for instance, can completely change an individual and can transform the smallest thing into our whole life," says Berger, a New York-based director who frequently works at the Public.
Baker, a 29-year-old native of Amherst, Mass., is a rising star. Circle Mirror, which debuted at New York's Playwrights Horizons, won widespread critical accolades and the Obie for best new American play, Off-Broadway's highest honor.
Circle Mirror is also the first installment in an ambitious forthcoming set of three contemporary plays at the Public. The company, which usually focuses on classics, is also staging Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts (2008) and Yazmina Reza's God of Carnage (2006).
As witnessed in rehearsal, the exceptional Circle Mirror cast includes Lauren Blumenfeld, Point Park instructor Bridget Connors and local stage favorites Daina Michelle Griffith, Daniel Krell and John Shepard.
The play's ordinary characters -- a teen-ager, a divorced carpenter, a former New York actress -- run through acting exercises, like holding a conversation limited to a few nonsense syllables, each stretched to contain new emotions. Thus Circle Mirror creates parallels between what actors do on stage and what people (and theater audiences) should try to do in real life. That is, to really listen to one another, even when no one's talking.
Berger compares Baker's script to a minimalist score -- something by Philip Glass. Performed too quickly, he says, the play would paradoxically become less interesting: "One of Annie's points is how much can happen in the silence."
Circle Mirror Transformation Thu., March 3-April 3. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. $15.75-55.75. 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org