The Sound Inside, by Adam Rapp. Directed by David Cromer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Willl Hochman as Christopher Dunn, Mary-Louise Parker as Bella Baird; photo: Carolyn Brown
"Twitter is the mother of mental syphillis."
Will Hochman; photo: Carolyn Brown
Illness sits securely at the center of the two lives on stage in Adam Rapp's new play, "The Sound Inside," which is receiving its world premiere performance in the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival right now. This is a dark play with very little about it to allay the chill of a remove plotted by the playwright. The principal character, Bella Baird, a successful author and teacher, is dying of stomach cancer. As though writing this story, rather than living it, she narrates her life, its actions, its meanings, its daily existence as though a microphone was taped to her jaw and someone, somewhere, was recording her story for humanity to listen to over and over in the future. It is an occasionally disconcerting style in which to perform a play. She describes the action we're watching and then comments on it as though a very personal analysis was necessary for either us, or perhaps herself, to understand what is happening to her and around her.
She has become engaged by a young student, Christopher Dunn, whose own way with words on the page has inspired her interest. Knowing that her chances of surviving the cancer are nil she ultimately befriends the boy in as serious and sincere a way possible and engages him to administer her three-point suicide injections. But such is the way of these things: he doesn't get beyond the first stage, desserts her, and commits suicide himself. This is more than I should tell you, but knowing all this doesn't really give away the play for I felt early on that this was the way this world would be turning. Too much is told, too much obvious, too much of what happens seems inevitable almost from the first.
The advantage given to Adam Rapp's play is found in direction, acting and design elements that are remarkably forthright and engaging. The boy, Christopher Dunn, is played by Will Hochman whose connection with space is simple: if it's there, fill it. No space has relevance without this man's body invading it, taking it over and filling it with emotional outpourings, physical out-croppings, psychotic out-takes from a life that might be fiction or, horribly, fact. Hochman is both young and dynamic. He really does dominate spaces and he is riveting. You cannot possibly not watch him and listen to him. He takes the stage. He holds it. It is remarkable to see how a young unknown can overwhelm Mary-Louise Parker when they are together. And even though the story is hers, Hochman holds the pieces in his long, slender hands.
Rapp's character is so well written, so artfully drawn, that we know him from his first slouching appearance. He and Hochman are helped by the artful vision of David Cromer, directing this play as a series of arrogant fragments imbedded in a story-telling mesh that hides the stage top to bottom, side to side. Heather Gilbert's evocative lighting design hones in on Hochman whenever he is on stage. It is almost as if he draws the light to himself. When a character demands so much physical embracing it is only right to give him his due, and Gilbert does just that. This play surrounds its magical realism sets, designed by Alexander Woodward, and its awkward story-telling with Tennessee Williams-like narration, again highlighted by the intensity and direction of light, sometimes sparkling props instead of people, making wonderful effects and concentrating our attention on things other than the people.
Mary-Louise Parker; photo: Carolyn Brown
Cromer never really takes us away from Mary-Louise Parker for long. She is clothed in academic drab, her hair pulled back behind her ears into a downward sliding pony-tail. Her costume by David Hyman suits a much younger woman, a college student rather than a teacher, and yet it helps to define a woman whose life has been devoted to things other than her body, sex, love or relationships of any kind. Bella is a woman whose single-mided devotion is to herself. Everything that happens to her in this play, including Christopher's self-revelatory monologues and accusations, is what she deserves, so it's what she gets. As her story progresses Bella, as played by Parker, becomes less and less sympathetic and more to be pitied than censured.
Pity is a pitiable state. Parker's Bella is better at telling her own story than she is living it. What we feel for her is more fascination than empathy. Cromer's use of isolation brings Bella into a world that has never truly existed, one of total alienation.We may think she is talking to us, her unseen but clearly perceived audience, but she is fulfilling a personal need, relating her history to herself in order to get a real handle on how things might have been done better to achieve her needs.
About five minuts before theplay begins sounds start to invade the theater, sounds of birds, guttural voicings, other things. They are quiet and subtle and non-intrusive but ultimately we realize that these are not unique noises, but part of the tapestry of this play. Daniel Kluger is responsible for the music and sound design.Video expressions are the work of Aaron Rhyne. The set changes are out of the Japanse theater style and they are not intrusive in the least and presumably created by the stage manager Dane Urban.
"The Sound Inside" could easily have been called "The Silence Inside" for both exist in this play. A strange experience and probably not to everyone's taste, it is an extreme display of negative energy utilized in a positive fashion. Depression is at the core of the work but it is never really depressing. Instead it is numbing. I am glad I saw it at a matinee for moving from this theater into a gloomy night atmosphere could have been overwhelming. This is a one-of-a-kind theater experience, one you won't forget. . .easily.
The Sound Inside plays on the Nikos Stage at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through July 8. For information and tickets go on line at wtfestival.org or call the box office at 413-458-3253.