How well do we know ourselves? If we don’t, then how can we truly discern others to help them, and get them to help us? Of course, that is if we indeed admit we need help! Adam Rapp (Pultizer Prize finalist for Red Light Winter 2006) touches upon themes of self-knowing, being, consciousness and the perception of others in The Sound Inside. Commissioned by Lincoln Center Theatre the play premiered at the Williamston Theatre Festival and now is at Studio 54 until 12th January.
Directed by David Cromer (Tony Award Winner for The Band’s Visit) and starring Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Mary-Louise Parker, with Will Hochman in his Broadway debut, the 90-minute production is spare and ironically humorous. Opaque, wisps of the mysterious slip into the arc of the play’s development. By the conclusion uncertainty is king; we must admit circumstances of character are unknowable as our understanding intrudes with imprecise interpretations about what the events may mean. Rapp strikes unusual timbers in this work and suggests the sounds we listen to inside of our minds and hearts remain elusive.
Rapp’s characterizations are drawn to entice. They loop around us and double in on themselves pinging our empathy. Despite their austere headiness and sometimes aloof demeanor, Rapp does allow Bella’s (Parker) and Christopher’s (Hochman) sensibilities to shine and soften as their relationship appears to deepen. With their responses to each other’s questions they attempt to connect and dissolve their gritty isolation. Parker and Hochman effect intriguing encounters with stirring, nuanced authenticity and exceptional feeling
The play begins and ends as a one-person narration, specifically with Bella’s direct address to the audience, a matter-of-fact revelation of her life up to and including her experience with a prodigy, a freshman in her writing class. Yale professor and writer, she initially elicits our attention speaking in complete darkness then gradually emerging from the shade as the spotlight grows brighter to finally make her visible. When she steps down front toward the audience, director David Cromer leaves the rest of the stage in darkness and shadow. It is as if she begins speaking from a vacuum, or a dark space somewhere in her own being and then seeks an audience of readers/listeners who will appreciate her story and remain with her while she tells her tale of self-discovery, healing and the uncertain apprehension of an individual who brings meaning into her life.
Cromer’s direction is pointed, symbolic and acute. With a minimalism of sets, he suggests Bella’s apartment, office and a local bar without distracting us from the most curious of relationships and events which occur between Bella and Christopher. The spareness and the directed lighting help to reinforce the dynamic tension between the teacher and her student.
Throughout, the director uses light and surrounding darkness interpretively. The symbolism of light and darkness assisted by Heather Gilbert’s excellent design suggests the intimacy of their conversation and undergirds the theme about never really knowing/ understanding the thoughts, consciousness and souls of others. Indeed, the lighting implies a possible theme, that we see others “through a glass darkly,” if they allow us to “see.” And if they do, it is merely bits and pieces of their larger unseen whole.
The lighting prepares us to be receptive to the personal stories that Bella and Christopher tell us as we watch their relationship move in a direction we cannot anticipate. We only know what they relate; we have no outside knowledge of the accuracy of what they express. Thus we must trust Bella and Christopher as narrators. However, Rapp twits us. We must also doubt them as he characterizes with vast indefiniteness, almost with a dream-like quality, though Bella appears more solid than Christopher.
Therein lies the rub! To what extent are Bella and Christopher reliable narrators? Both of them address the audience and discuss their perceptions of each other without particular effusion of feeling. Actually, we receive more from their interactions and the stories they have written.
However, that too ends in an opaque blind because their stories which have autobiographical and symbolic components, are indeed, fiction. Yet, they are metaphorical and may even parallel their real lives and their portentous deaths.
Christopher details a synopsis of Bella’s novel whose character’s last name is the same as hers and who dies proving a point about the culture and human nature. Christopher relates the synopsis of his novel in which one of his protagonists (Shane) dies. The other character whose name is the same as Christopher’s takes Shane’s place and cares for his son whose name is the same as Bella’s protagonist who dies (Billy). In both Bella’s and Christopher’s novels, deaths occur and these complicate our understanding of Bella and Christopher because they are related to Bella’s narration of events about Christopher and her interactions with him.
In a further complication and twist, Christopher’s novel contains allusions to particular novels he’s read in Bella’s class: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, etc., as well as a references to Christopher’s favorite book, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. The reference to Wild Palms by William Faulkner a favorite of Bella’s and Christopher’s, Rapp uses as an allusion to The Sound Inside. In Rapp’s play the lives of Bella and Christopher are narratives of isolated individuals. These individuals are momentarily arrested from their aloneness on the venerable college campus where they connect, energize, impact one another then move on having made an indelible and irrevocable exchange which Rapp alludes to at the conclusion. You will just have to see The Sound Inside to find out what that is; no spoiler alert is coming to reveal the final impact of this play, shimmering with the ineffable, the uncertain, the intangible.
Rapp teases us with the references to celebrated novels and their tie-ins as well as the mystery of the final events of Bella’s narration about her relationship with Christopher: the help she needs from him and the help her gives her. All are under the penumbra of Bella’s story-telling which spins outward into a cloudy firmament. Indeed, as she importunes Christopher toward the end, she has “reached into a dark room for something.” Christopher helps her with her fateful request with an even more fateful response.
Parker’s Bella concludes with us emerging from her flashback into the present in her last address to the audience. She stands in the spotlight, the darkness of the park behind her. This is where she solicited us and sparked our curiosity at the top of the play, so we are back at a beginning. Throughout we remained rapt, engaged and constantly questioning. However, at the last in the park with Bella, we finally must accept what she has told us is both a reflection of her own consciousness and meaning and ours, in a meld of fiction, imagination and faith.
Parker and Hochman take us on this incredible journey toward connection reminding us of the impact we do have on others despite our assumptions to the contrary. Ironically, however, we cannot always state with certainty what that impact is or might be. In Rapp’s thrilling play, opacity and its companion uncertainty about human nature, knowing and consciousness are paramount.
That Rapp breaks the third wall to tell Bella’s then conjointly Christopher’s stories is vital. As we tell our own stories or write them, we constantly intrude to watch ourselves in the telling. Objectivity is a canard as is connection. Our consciousness is ours alone, a key theme of Rapp’s work. We can move parallel with others, but we move alone. After we come to the end of ourselves, the journey may be great fun. But along the way, as it is for Bella (until after she meets Christopher) and for Christopher, the pain of discovering identity, and settling comfortably into our consciousness tears us like a cancer which must be healed.
Kudos to Alexander Woodward (scenic design) David Hyman (costume design) Heather Gilbert (lighting design) Daniel Kluger (music and sound). The Sound Inside runs with no intermission at Studio 54 (West 54th Street between 7th and 8th). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.