Review: Jarrott Productions' The Sound Inside
An understated, intriguing page-turner
Reviewed by Bob Abelman, Fri., Jan. 20, 2023
How do you measure the smart, intense, no-frills character study that is The Sound Inside, written by Adam Rapp, brother of original Rent actor Anthony Rapp? Not in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee. More like in darkness, in shadows, in things foreboding, in stylish and witty well-restrained prose.
The play, which premiered on Broadway in 2019 and is currently being staged by Jarrott Productions, features Bella Baird (Rebecca Robinson), a lonely, middle-aged novelist, literarian, and creative writing professor at Yale who, after doubling over in pain while rereading James Salter's Light Years, receives a diagnosis of late-stage cancer. On campus, she encounters a freshman named Christopher Dunn (Tucker Shepherd) who, like her, is a social misfit, staunchly opinionated about all things literature, and a passionate lover of great novels like Crime and Punishment. After announcing in class that he intends to one day write a moment as perfect as those found in Dostoyevsky's tale, we learn that he is in the early stage of writing a novel of his own. As their friendship and trust solidify, so does their comfort in asking the other for a very personal, life-altering favor.
The Sound Inside serves up an intensely intimate and deeply moving storyline, but what is most compelling is the storytelling. Rapp, himself an award-winning novelist, captures and theatricalizes a writer's creative process by having Bella speak in direct address and – using a well-honed, brilliantly descriptive vocabulary and third-person omnipotence – share her life experiences as if reading aloud from a novel. The play begins with her stepping out of the darkness and into an isolated patch of light to tell us a story about "a middle-aged professor of undergraduate creative writing at a prestigious Ivy League university [who] stands before an audience of strangers."
Throughout the play, Bella and Christopher share the narrative voice and alternate in the telling of their story. Monologues seamlessly segue into dialogue, all delivered with the easy cadence of a podcast or audio tape of a bestseller. The result is as hypnotic as it is stunning.
Yet opening night, the show was slow coming out of the gate in terms of the whole direct-address, third-person thing, making the play sound plodding, excessively cerebral, and rigorously unsentimental. But soon the actors found their desired rhythm, and the calm assurance in their delivery created something more intimate, intricate, and lived in, as if the characters were sculpting words rather than merely relaying them. In Shepherd's hands, Christopher comes across as stirred but never shaken. He is awkward and angry, but never self-pitying. Robinson's Bella possesses the understandable vulnerability of a woman facing her own mortality, but it is always understated and never defines her. While the characters take themselves and each other very seriously, the performers are always able to find the humor in Bella's and Christopher's hamartias.
Also stunning is the staging. Following the lead of the original work on Broadway, director David R. Jarrott and designers Zane Bares (scenic), Alison Lewis (lighting), Aaron Flynn (costuming), Craig Brock and Rodd Simonsen (sound), and Lowell Bartholomee (projections) create a startlingly spare performance space, utilizing darkness to represent Bella's depressed state of mind and framing the actors in a bright spotlight that separates them from the surrounding darkness to establish their sense of acute isolation. As Bella leaves one safe space for another – the desk in her small office, a small room in her faculty housing, a favorite bench on the New Haven Green near campus – the spotlight fades to black in the location now unoccupied and immediately illuminates the next location, as if guiding her along her finite path. When Bella describes the creative process – the subliminal sound inside while writing – a low-pitched, low-volume white noise accompanies her words, so we can hear what she hears.
Rapp's play is thoroughly engrossing, the way a good novel can be, and this production of it is a page-turner.
Jarrott Productions' The Sound InsideGround Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale #122, 512/840-1804
Through Jan. 28
Running time: 85 min.