TUESDAY, OCT. 25, 2011 - The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of Circle Mirror Transformation at the Loretto-Hilton Center. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Story: The setting is a small dance studio in the Shirley, Vermont community center. There, Marty leads a cluster of four students, including her husband James, in a weekly adult acting class. Marty is James’ second wife, a bohemian who eschews stereotypes and yet is instinctively judgmental in her reactions. James, we learn, has lived a life of yearning and adventure spawned by an unhappy childhood, and is estranged from his only child, a 23-year-old daughter.

Schultz is recently divorced and seeking some sort of connection with the world to ward off his loneliness. Theresa is an actress who has left behind a modest career in New York City along with an abusive boyfriend, while teenage Lauren seems to lurk timidly in the shadows of life. During the course of their summer acting studies, these five vulnerable individuals learn a bit about form and improvisation and a lot about themselves in the process.

Highlights: Like Richard Harris’ poignant and amusing drama, Stepping Out, that probed the lives of sundry students in a tap dancing class in an English church basement, this one-act work by Annie Baker presents the possibilities of several emotionally wounded people who seek solace and salvation in a weekly gathering in their own theatrical church.

Thanks to the wise choices of casting director Rich Cole and the sage guidance of director Stuart Carden, the quintet of performers in The Rep’s season-opening Studio Theatre presentation delightfully, and painfully, portray the scarred psyches of these troubled souls whose optimism rises above their litany of disappointments.

Other Info: While Baker’s story is somewhat formulaic and predictable (man on rebound falls for pretty woman, wounded duckling transforms into beautiful swan), it offers enough moments of intrigue and interpretation to pique the curiosity of non-theatrical sorts. It’s interesting, too, how her script follows a 21st century approach to the nuclear family, composed of disparate strangers who bond together in part because their own personal relationships are as stable as quicksand.

Still, Baker’s title is incisive as she adroitly moves her characters through their initial foray at the class’ inception to more polished, or more reflective, personalities at its conclusion. Charlotte Mae Jusino provides the starkest development of the five as Lauren, who evolves from a shy, quirky lass at the studio perimeter into a self-confident and triumphant sort, all in 90 minutes. Jusino’s judicious body language and facial expressions delightfully mark her character as much as her dialogue.

Kate Middleton offers a deft portrayal of Theresa, a woman whose innate charm and sexuality are natural magnets for the insecure Schultz and the self-important James. Middleton’s glares in a game of “sharing secrets” are priceless and the highlight of several humorous moments in Baker’s clever script. As Schultz, Danny McCarthy is endearing in showing us the lumbering man’s lack of creativity but also his hopeful heart.

Lynne Wintersteller and John Ottavino contribute to the fine ensemble performance in their roles as wife and husband Marty and James. Wintersteller’s interpretation of Marty is wincingly consistent as she allows us glimpses into the tender areas of a woman afraid to admit the failures and disappointments in her life even as she gamely adopts the persona of teacher to her tiny assortment of students. Ottavino does a fine job shaping the role of James, an apparent emperor who eventually is shown figuratively without his royal clothes.

Jack Magaw’s scenic design gives the stage the look of a community center recreation room, with hardwood floor and drab walls as well as an imposing mirror at one end that allows for interesting observation of the players by the audience. Mark Wilson’s lighting underscores the locale, while Garth Dunbar’s costumes precisely match each of the characters’ personalities. The sound design by Rusty Wandall shows a subtle transformation of its own, from raucous and free-spirited at the beginning to more modulated tones at the conclusion.

Carden keeps the presentation moving at a brisk pace, allowing the humor and pathos to play out naturally through the talents of his cast. Circle Mirror Transformation is not a great play but a good one that will resonate with people who have “been there” and offer an evening of reflective observation for the rest of us.

Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

Dates: Through November 13

Tickets: $45-$58; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org