If there’s any setting that’s easy to gently satirize, it’s the progressive college campus in the throes of an earnest social campaign. Louisville’s feminist theatre company Looking for Lilith takes up the challenge with Annie Baker’s “Body Awareness,” an awkward and satisfying comedy about the personal intersections of power and empathy whose social commentary never overwhelms its warm and engaging human story.
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, “Body Awareness” opened Thursday at the University of Louisville’s Thrust Theatre and runs through May 17. (The production is sponsored by U of L’s Women’s and Gender Studies department and its LGBT Center.)
In fictional Shirley, Vermont (an Amherst, Mass.-reminiscent college town where Baker has set several plays), university psychology professor Phyllis (Teresa Willis) is coordinating Body Awareness Week on campus. It’s the event formerly observed as Eating Disorder Awareness Week, but by broadening the scope, the committee can bring in programming as broad as puppet theatre, a domestic violence quilt and a Palestinian dance troupe. Hey, it’s all related to the body, somehow — your own, the bodies of others, body judgment and shame, and the ever-present Male Gaze.
Phyllis and her partner Joyce (Trina Fischer) are hosting the visiting artist, a photographer named Frank (Sean Childress) whose portraits of female nudes send their household — which includes Joyce’s adult son Jared (Richie Goff), who may or may not have Asperger’s Syndrome — into a tailspin. Joyce loves the humanity and courage she sees in the photos, while Phyllis only sees objectification and exploitation of women. For two feminists who usually see eye-t0-eye on such matters, it’s a ground-shaking difference of opinion.
The first time we meet Frank, he’s playing a recorder, apropos of nothing — and Joyce is impressed. But Baker displays remarkable restraint with such tempting ridiculous touches, preferring to let the power dynamics of the relationships take center stage. When Joyce and Phyllis use Jared’s apparent lack of empathy to convince him that he might have Asperger’s and could seek treatment to help him live a more full life, he turns that around — are they being truly empathetic toward him? Is Phyllis’ discomfort with Frank really rooted in his work, or is it about how Joyce, who defers to the lightly domineering Phyllis in many areas, favors him? Does Joyce miss male attention, or is she simply responding to someone in a more dominant position who actually listens to her?
One of Baker’s earlier plays, “Body Awareness” has a more conventional pace than later works like “The Aliens” (produced in Louisville by Theatre  in 2012, one-third of the play is made up of silence) and “The Flick,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (and so irritated audiences at its off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons opening that it prompted a public response from the artistic director). “Body Awareness” might lack the prolonged silences of Baker’s later work, but the foundations of her doggedly naturalistic style are there — in how Phyllis stammers her way eagerly through her campus event talks, in how Joyce giggles awkwardly with Frank, and especially in Jared, whose abrupt conversational rhythms reveal how hard he is — or isn’t — trying to communicate with his family.
Ellis honors the script’s disruption of the easy conversational rhythms of most family dramedies with a steady yet slightly off-kilter pace, and her cast delivers understated, wholly satisfying performances. Childress brings a delightfully Alec Baldwinish executive-louche energy to his role as provocateur inside the gallery and out. As tightly-wound Jared, Goff has the most explosive role in the cast, and the actor handles the fact that his character also gets most of the uncomfortable punchlines with a grounded delicacy that keeps him from falling into easy Sheldon Cooper-esque gags.
And every time Goff spits out the word “retarded” — what he’s afraid an Asperger’s diagnosis will mark him as — Fischer gives just enough of a reaction to indicate that her character is working very hard not to overreact, as a frightened mother and as a socially-enlightened person. Willis’ transformation from alpha-female confidence to shaky ground is strong and nuanced, as is Fischer’s gradual empowerment inside the home and relationship.
“Body Awareness” ends with some conflicts uneasily resolved and others just beginning to take on weight, a fitting nod to the awkward, un-tidy actual world Baker’s naturalism seeks to portray. The company continues to produce talk-back events after performances, and on Tuesday, Paul Paletti Gallery (713 E. Market St.) will hold a reception (5:30-7:30 p.m.) to celebrate the production and show off an exhibit of female nudes from the photography gallery’s permanent collection.