'The Sound Inside' illuminates Williamstown's Nikos Stage


WILLIAMSTOWN — Rarely have form and function combined with such compelling revelation and persuasion as they do in Adam Rapp's haunting, unsentimental two-character play, "The Sound Inside," which, under David Cromer's astute direction, is being given a deeply affecting and memorable world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage.

"The Sound Inside" is essentially a monologue, punctuated by vivid scenes involving the narrator, Bella Lee Baird (a compelling, often wry Mary-Louise Parker), a 53-year-old professor of undergraduate creative writing at Yale University who has to her professional credit "two slim volumes of short stories published before I was hired at Yale," she says directly to the audience, "and an underappreciated novel written in my late thirties that, despite some flattering reviews and a mention or two on a handful of year-end lists, is struggling to stay in print."

Her greatest claim in life, she says, is her book collection, "everyone from Theodore Dreiser to Edith Wharton to Samuel Beckett. I'm a whore for first editions."

She lives alone in faculty housing; has never smoked; travels by bike rather than car; is unadorned in dress and makeup; has no children, has never been married and, she says, "like many single-self-possessed women who've managed to find solid footing in the slippery foothills of higher education, I've been accused of being a lesbian."

Bella's narrative falls back 14 months just after she has been diagnosed with a malignancy in her stomach that has advanced well into Stage Two, similar to the condition that claimed her mother when she was 54.

But it's an incident in one of her classes, Reading Fiction for Craft, a requirement for creative writing majors, that triggers Bella's narrative. During a discussion in class about Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and Raskolnikov's first murder — that of a pawnbroker with a stolen ax — one of Bella's students, Christopher Dunn (an edgy and poignant Will Hochman) — who, in a previous discussion maintained that Dostoyevsky created Roskolnikov "to inspire moral fascination" — blurts from his seat in the back row of the classroom, "Someday I'm going to write a moment like that."

"Just saying it out loud takes courage," Bella remarks.

Not long after, Christopher shows up at her office, unannounced, with no appointment, something that does not sit well with Bella. But that unexpected encounter sends Bella and Christopher on a journey that will end in isolation and loneliness against a winter landscape. And as Bella traces that journey, she pauses at moments to jot down notes on a pad of paper as she makes discoveries, realizations, insights; as if she is laying the foundation for her next novel.

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As played by Hochman, there is an unsettling edge to Christopher. His Christopher vulnerable, as needy as he is independent, a loner. He is manic, impulsive, frequently interrupting Bella, talking over her. Given to frequent outbursts. he is a world unto himself, as is Bella, for that matter. The two begin a fateful journey that leads to a grand bargain in which Bella agrees to read Christopher's completed novel in return for which he agrees to help Bella as she faces mortality head on. Bella shares portions of Christopher's novel, which turns on a sudden and unexpected act of violence with her audience, raising disturbing questions that go to Christopher's sense of "moral fascination" and just how much Christopher's creation is drawn from life or imagination.

Rapp's language is a luxurious blend of literary imagery and rhythm and theatrical nuance and intensity.

At one point, Bella talks about dissuading students from giving too much detail about their protagonist.

"Readers need only a few telling clues," she says, citing a few examples. "If you do your authorial job correctly your eager reader will create the rest of the character."

Theater is a visual medium. Heather Gilbert's lighting and especially Alexander Woodward's dense black set provide only the most telling of clues — a grey couch, matching grey armchair and table for Bella's apartment; two simple chairs and a table-like desk for Bella's office. Only a projection telling audience members to silence their cell phones and a barely perceptible remnant of amber lighting on a portion of the stage foor pierce the dense blackness that envelops the stage as the audience enters the theater.

The whole is mesmerizing, haunting, poignant, especially in the final image Bella creates for us.

In its elegant simplicity and complexity, "The Sound Inside" echoes long after its pinpoints of light at the curtain call fade to black.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshieeagle.com or 413-496-6212


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