Review: THE SOUND INSIDE Thrills and Bemuses at Everyman Theatre

This is one of those all-too-rare plays that just bowls you over, even if, afterwards, you're not quite sure where you've been during its bemusing 90 minutes.

By: Mar. 12, 2023
Review: THE SOUND INSIDE Thrills and Bemuses at Everyman Theatre
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The Sound Inside, by Adam Rapp, now gracing the boards at Baltimore's Everyman Theatre, is one of those all-too-rare plays that just bowls you over, even if, afterwards, you're not quite sure where you've been during its bemusing 90 minutes. It doesn't entirely matter; the audience will have been on a fascinating, eerie and absorbing journey.

The ambiguities start piling up at once. Bella (Beth Hylton), a middle-aged professor teaching creative writing at Yale, is approached by an oddly-dressed student in her class named Christopher (Zack Powell), whose behavior is hard to fathom (preference for typewriters over computers, spitting on the floor, staunch resistance to rules governing appointments during Bella's office hours, and moments when he goes nearly catatonic); he seeks what might be mentorship. Bella, we soon learn through her extensive monologues directed to the audience, is a lonely soul, confronting a probably terminal cancer diagnosis, and in that way vulnerable. The two of them embark on what might be a flirtation and at least involves some boundary-breaching, but also seems in many ways like a normal teacher-student relationship. Christopher is trying to write a novel, and she is trying to help him do it.

But are we going somewhere really sinister with this? Much emphasis is laid in their discussions on the character of Raskolnikov in another novel, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, whose transgressions include killing an older woman. Is that where we're headed - and if so, at whose instigation? And as the play draws to an end, we may think we're on the right track with our theories, but the apparent ending of the play is illusory, and next we get what amounts to a game being played out in overtime, which advances the story another step or two, and will amend various things we had thought we knew.

Looking back, it will seem as if karma has been at work in the way the two participants' lives have balanced each other out, but if so, only by way of one character's unknowable motivations and decisions. Because of that gap in information, the audience will never be able to say for sure which of the two of them is the agent and which is the one acted upon. Nor will be we able to say what the lesson of the story is, or if there is any lesson at all, despite the tale feeling awfully like a parable.

It also feels a bit like a puzzle. The compositional and philosophical interplay between the strange novel Christopher is writing and what is happening in his life, and also between the novel and what may or may not be happening between Christopher and Bella remind one a bit of Tiny Alice, and a bit of The Name of the Rose. We begin to lose our sense of what may be a miniature of, or a warning concerning, or an artistic working-through of something else.

In all this ambiguity, one thing remains clear: this is a terrific play, with two juicy parts, especially Bella's. When this play landed on Broadway in 2019, Bella was played by Mary Louise Parker, who won the Tony for Best Leading Actress. It's the kind of role that makes such an award possible. I'm sorry I missed Parker, whom I deeply admire, but I'm glad I got to see Hylton play Bella. It's hard to imagine anyone handling it better than Hylton, who provides us a Bella who is by turns donnish and analytical, wistful, detached, passionate, and, in the final going, almost dumbstruck, groping to understand what has happened to her or how to respond. And the audience is drawn in her wake with every line. The prose is simply gorgeously, often slyly poetic, and Hylton just keeps on landing those line readings.

And of course, this being Everyman, everything else is as it should be, especially the set by Yu Shibagaki, whose work I do not recall having seen before; there are touches, particularly the way the proscenium arch is decorated, which cumulatively tell us we are specifically at Yale (see the above photograph for more), as well as rolling set elements that move us swiftly between campus and home; somehow the set also accommodates one crucial projection, courtesy of Kelly Colburn (I won't describe it for fear of giving too much away).

As readers in this space know, I've had my problems with a couple of Everyman shows this season, and I'm delighted that this is one I can unhesitatingly recommend. Not to be missed.

The Sound Inside, by Adam Rapp, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, presented through April 2 by Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $3-$63, at 410-752-2208 or Adult language, and discussion of cancer, suicide, murder, illegal procurement of substances online, and a consensual sexual encounter, graphically described.

Production photo by Madeline 'Mo' Oslejsek.


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