Clockwise from bottom are Molly McKasson, Brian Wees, Carrie Hill, Lucille Petty and James Henriksen in "Circle Mirror Transformation," a small play overflowing with improvisational acting exercises. It opened Tuesday at the Invisible Theatre.

TIM FULLER / COURTESY OF INVISIBLE THEATRE

All actors have got to start somewhere.

And unfortunately for many of them, that's in a basic acting class.

Just such a class is central to Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation," a gentle, well-done comedy that Invisible Theatre opened Tuesday.

The class is taught in a funky little community center in fictional Shirley, Vt. There are just four students and one teacher. Three of those four students never acted before; the one that had clearly did not have the chops, so she fled New York and ended up in Shirley taking an acting class.

Now, these classes are just full of improvisational games (the title is one such theater game) that feel completely unnatural. Are completely unnatural. You have to pretend to have a conversation with just grunts. Or sit in a circle and try to make up stories, one word, one person, at a time. Or pretend you are somebody else.

Yikes, it's painful just thinking about.

But this class exacts a transformation in these students as they go through the motions.

The thing about acting is that you must forget yourself, be natural, live in the moment, feel the moment, be rooted in it. That's a formula for living an authentic life, as well. That's what the class is learning, and that's what the audience takes away.

Of course, any class led by the teacher Marty (Molly McKasson) is bound to have an impact. McKasson infuses her with passion, generosity and compassion, and it's hard to refuse Marty her goofy games.

The class is an eclectic bunch: James (a fine but a bit one-note James Henriksen) is Marty's husband. He is a man who is a tad unfeeling and out of touch with himself, his wife, his family, to be married to such a vibrant woman. Still, he's taking this class to please her, no doubt. Schultz (Brian Wees) is a divorced and lonely carpenter who longs to love and be loved. Wees gives a big heart and a deep pain to the character.

Theresa (Carrie Hill), the one-time actress, is too self-aware, too self-indulgent, too insecure and too shallow to ever make it on the stage. She has taken what she has learned about being honest and open and uses it to manipulate and mislead. Hill makes this character crackle and while we don't like Theresa, we sure love watching her. Lauren (Lucille Petty) is the youngest of the bunch. She longs to play Maria in her high school production of "West Side Story" and she figures this acting class will help. But she's confused. "Are we going to be doing any real acting?" she asks in the midst of one of Marty's seemingly inane games. Petty nailed the awkwardness of the teen and her exasperation at this group of people who demand intimate details of her life in order to flesh out acting abilities.

Betsy Kruse Craig directed with a clean eye and with some restraint - this play has the potential to be a bit too sentimental but Craig kept it from falling off the deep end.

"Circle Mirror Transformation" is a small play. But hey, good things can come in small packages. This production is a case in point.

Review

• What: "Circle Mirror Transformation."

• Playwright: Annie Baker.

• Presented by: Invisible Theatre.

• Director: Betsy Kruse Craig.

•When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 20.

• Where: Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave.

• Tickets: $25. Rush hour tickets are half-price 30 minutes before curtain; subject to availability.

• Reservations, information: 882-9721 or www.invisibletheatre.com

• Running time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.