It’s challenging to recall a new play in recent memory that is more finely constructed and beautifully composed than Pulitzer-finalist Adam Rapp’s astonishing THE SOUND INSIDE. Add on the exquisitely sensitive direction by Tony-winner David Cromer and two perfectly contoured performances by the accomplished Mary Louise Parker and newcomer Will Hochman and what’s been premiered at Williamstown is a work of theatre often aspired to but seldom achieved.
Bella Baird is an undistinguished (an early novelist career fizzled out) but tenured professor of literature at Yale, who teaches creative writing. She’s a creature of the academy and a solitary, relationshipless life. Shortly after she's diagnosed with stomach cancer, Christopher, a complicated young student of uneven emotional disposition, seeks advice on his fledgling, perhaps autobiographical, novel.
With this premise, Rapp has written a play that is as remarkable for the story it tells, as it is for how it tells the story. The play opens as a memory play, Bella telling us she’s going to tell a story of a woman and wondering what people will make of it. Her personal history and events between her and Christopher emerge when they sometimes narrate, facing the audience, what is happening, shifting back then out again, to what’s really enfolding in the scene.
The details of how Bella deals with her illness and how that relates to Christopher is gripping narrative, with a stunning conclusion, but most compelling about THE SOUND INSIDE is how the subtext drives the drama. Bella’s detached, avoiding conflict, emotionally inert from her own prospective personal crisis, yet with a writer's curiosity and hunger for detail sees in Christopher and his developing novel conflict and tragedy. She has no need for a relationship, yet she engages Christopher in a most consequential way. Is there a story without another? Bella, the constant observer, is always describing what she observes, taking notes, writing them down. Is it truer when a written word? Is it more real? THE SOUND INSIDE is profoundly a playwright’s play. It’s as much about how we tell stories about ourselves as it is about what happens to Bella and Christopher.
Director Cromer appropriately leaves a lot of the story in the dark on a barely lit stage, on which, rolled on and off, a two-sided small set box doubles as Bella’s cramped office and tired apartment. Just as Rapp shifts the parallax of storytelling, so does Cromer move the set to peculiar spots sometimes down, sometimes upstage, out of kilter. Cromer lets the playwright’s words speak for themselves - and the silences too.
But within those silences there is sound, which beats almost inaudibly with the steady, repeating question - whose life, whose story is it anyway? THE SOUND INSIDE quietly yet powerfully forces us to listen as great theatre should.
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