Theatre Reviews
Photo by John Gitchoff courtesy of Moonstone Theatre

Every author puts pieces of himself into his works. Oceans of critical analysis have belabored the extent to which an author’s creations reflect his own life story. Adam Rapp’s play, “The Sound Inside,” tauntingly addresses this question. It’s engaging and mysterious and it carries a wispy thread of dread. It’s running now in a fine production by the Moonstone Theatre Company.

We meet Bella Baird, a tenured professor of Creative Writing at Yale. She’s fifty-three and has recently learned that she is dying of stomach cancer. Young Christopher Dunn is a student in one of Bella’s classes—Reading Fiction for Craft. He’s possibly gifted.

Now these are two desperately lonely people, but they are lonely because they have walled themselves off from human contact. Bella has no friends among her peers. And with students? No open-door policy here; students must schedule an appointment through the administrative mechanism. And Christoper? He absolutely bristles with hostility and rudeness—and contempt for both the academic rules and the common interests and entertainments of his fellow students. This is a young man filled with hate (which the script sometimes has him SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS).

But these two loners meet. And they bond.

Christopher is writing a novel, and he finds a novel that Bella wrote long ago. The stories are strange allegories—with thematic parallels. And they seem to inch menacingly toward each other with the speed of roots. The central character in Bella’s story is a boy named Billy Baird. The central character in Christopher’s story is a student named Christopher—and there’s a baby named Billy. Now Bella’s tale is clearly fiction. But Christopher’s? We’re not so sure. (Curious fact: the playwright’s mother’s maiden name was Baird.)

The play is directed by Gary Wayne Barker, long familiar to us for his fine work on both sides of the foot-lights. He’s a Professor of Acting at St. Louis University.

The designers for this show are the absolute A-team of veteran professionals in St. Louis, and they all are at the top of their forms. Dunsi Dai gives us a quite beautiful and simple set that gracefully becomes a campus office, a restaurant, an apartment, and some pool-of-light areas for narrative monologues. Michael Sullivan makes this complex lighting plot look deceptively simple and graceful. Costumes for this play are, let’s admit, not much of a challenge for the very gifted Michele Friedman Siler—but she nails them, as usual. Sound designer Amanda Werre uses an appropriately light hand, touching the evening with some gentle piano.

There are projections above and around the set throughout the evening—an enlargement of a painting, a restaurant scene, another room in the apartment, all-encompassing rain. They are quite gorgeous, and they were designed by Spencer Roe-Weaver.

Moonstone’s founder and Artistic Director Sharon Hunter plays Bella. It’s a strong and engaging performance, but too often she seemed to know exactly what she was going to say before she said it. Now in her earlier career as a radio personality on KEZK a smooth, confident delivery was a prime virtue; any little gaps would be edited out. But on stage we want to see the words born in the actor’s mind—occasional tiny pauses to seek a word or to let a thought gel.

Ryan Lawson-Maeske plays Christopher with great energy and with a nice sense that his anger is a defense.

In 1999, when “Sound Inside” moved from a small Off-Broadway stage to a much larger one on Broadway, there was fear that this intimate play might be awkwardly “expanded” to fill the space, but it was not. If anything it was reduced—less detail, less specificity. And it was thus improved. The Reim Theater in Kirkwood has a very wide stage and a large house. Moonstone and its team have attempted to expand the play to fill that space. The projections—however beautiful—are really distractions from the intimacy. The restaurant chatter and noises are so unnecessary. All that drenching rain? Lovely, but at a cost. And when Christopher excuses himself to use the bathroom, why on earth does the rear wall fade to a scrim so that we can see his back while he pees? These things are certainly not in the script, and I see no dramatic reason for them at all.

Both Bella and playwright Rapp write lines that oddly contradict many things they teach. Some monologues are dripping with ripe adjectives and adverbs. There ’s some pretty yucky detail about dying from cancer—and about the sex Bella has with a stranger she meets in a bar.

But it’s a play that rewards thinking on. It rewards re-reading to unfold its mysteries.

The title? Bella has her class imagine doing the worst possible thing they could do—then brain-dumping words onto paper. She joins them—and can only write and rewrite “Listen to the sound inside”. At the very end of the play that is exactly what she hears as she contemplates doing a great crime. She listens to her conscience.

Moonstone Theatre’s “The Sound Inside” continues at the Reim theatre in Kirkwood through February 25th.

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