Stage Door Review
The Sound Inside
Monday, May 15, 2023
by Adam Rapp, directed by Leora Morris
Coal Mine Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto
May 11-June 3, 2023
“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands” (from Light Years by James Salter)
Adam’s Rapp has written his 2018 play The Sound Inside to be intentionally enigmatic. Depending on your point of view this fact is either fascinating or annoying. The play works best as a portrait of a middle-aged female professor at an Ivy League university who during her ten years of tenure there has succeeded in making no friends. Why this should be so ought to be the question we ask, but Rapp has so framed the story as a self-reflexive artifice that it is almost pointless to try to understand the woman as a character. It takes an actor at the height of her powers to make the play work, and this the Coal Mine production it has in Moya O’Connell, who gives the one of the most outstanding performances I have seen so far this year.
The play begins with O’Connell introducing herself as Bella Baird. She is 53 and teaches Creative Writing at Yale. She has published one little noticed novel and two slim collections of short stories. Every year she rereads the 1975 novel Light Years by James Salter. While she was reading Salter one night she was doubled over with pain. A trip to the emergency ward revealed that her stomach was covered with malignant tumours. She watched her mother die of cancer and does not want to go through the same experience herself.
She teaches Reading Fiction for Craft, “a requirement for aspiring Creative Writing majors. The purpose of the class is to read classic novels and discuss authorial strategies”. She begins with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), in the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation as she pedantically informs us. What she wants the class to learn is how Dostoevsky makes the reader feel sympathetic for an axe murder.
Dostoevsky’s novel is central to the theme of Rapp’s plot so a short reminder may be in order. The novel concerns a former student, Raskolnikov, who kills an elderly female pawnbroker and her half-sister in order to steal their money. His theory is that the money will do him more good than the women since he has higher goals to achieve. Though he gets away with the crime, he is racked with so much guilt that he eventually confesses to it.
Bella is surprised one day when a student, Christopher Dunn, who has so far been quiet, announces that he would like to write a scene like the murder scene in the novel. He later visits Bella during office hours unannounced feeling that only Bella can understand what he feels. Eventually, Bella, strangely enough, comes to feel that only Christopher can understand her.
It happens that Christopher is writing a novel which also concerns a murder that the main character, also named Christopher, gets away with. Bella is so interested in the progress of Christopher’s novel that she invites the student first to dinner at a restaurant and then dinner at her home. This breaks basic ethical protocols of professor-student relations at most universities. In fact, in 2021 a Yale law professor was disciplined for having a group of students to her home for dinner. Imagine if she had invited only one male student. Rapp should know the rules since he is a Professor of Drama at Yale.
Rapp makes clear that Bella and Christopher are not interested in each other sexually or romantically, but that’s not the point. Rapp has Bella upbraid Christopher for not following the proper protocols in setting up a visit during office hours, yet she feels free to break protocols for professor-student relations outside of class.
Worse, Bella eventually asks Christopher to her house to do something that is totally illegal. What beggars belief in this situation is that Rapp includes absolutely no discussion of the legal, or even emotional, consequences for Christopher in doing what Bella asks.
There are two ways at looking at what has to be regarded as a major flaw in the play. Either Rapp does not want to explore the full ramifications of his story, or Rapp is deliberately presenting Bella as someone who does not want to explore, or does not even see, the full ramifications of her story.
In watching The Sound Inside we tend to forget that the play is entirely Bella’s story. Christopher has no scenes on his own. He appears only to make the dialogue that Bella recounts easier. Christopher is thus entirely a product of Bella’s narrative. When we realize this we have to wonder how real anything is that we have been watching.
The play begins in full metatheatrical mode with Bella saying, “A middle-aged professor of undergraduate Creative Writing at a prestigious Ivy League university stands before an audience of strangers.... Is this audience friendly, she wonders? Merciful? Are they easily distracted? Or will they hear this woman out?” If we didn’t already know that all plays are fictions, we certainly should know that this one is after these initial words. Rapp has played with metatheatricality before. In Red Light Winter (2005), the entire first act is part of an autobiographical play, a fact we only discover in Act 1.
In watching the The Sound Inside the first time we likely get so caught up in the storytelling that we forget that storytelling always involves manipulation. In studying Crime and Punishment, she wanted the class to see how Dostoevsky made a murderer sympathetic. In telling what is supposedly her own story, Bella does everything she can to make herself sympathetic. This would explain why she omits to mention the unethical nature of a professor inviting one student for dinner off campus. This would also explain why she omits to mention the fundamental illegality of the favour she asks of Christopher. Bella portrays involving Christopher as the only way she can get what she wants.
At the start Bella as narrator asks whether the audience will be “merciful” suggesting that she wants us to forgive not only her actions but her omissions and bending of the truth. Since Bella is a teacher of “authorial strategies”, we should remember that one of these many strategies is that of the “unreliable narrator”.
Christopher’s finished novel ends with an ellipsis and so, in effect, does Bella’s story since it is a puzzle that leaves open a wide number of solutions, no single one being the correct one. This makes us wonder what, then, Rapp’s play is meant to be. If Bella’s narrative is intended as an intellectual puzzle, why is it so artificial and pretentious? Books and authors are name-dropped throughout the play that even voracious readers may not know.
The fact that Bella reads James Salter’s Light Years every year would be an important key to her character, if the majority of the audience had even heard of the novel. Salter’s novel was disregarded when it appeared in 1975. Only after his death in 2015 was it reappraised and declared one of the great American novels. Salter’s view that life means nothing would help explain Bella’s actions, but the reference is so obscure few in the audience will get the connection.
To make Rapp’s text work as a play that involves an audience depends entirely on the actor playing Bella. Moya O’Connell is exactly the right actor for this role. From the very start, O’Connell communicates such vulnerability, intelligence and self-deprecation that we really do not want to question anything her character says or does. This helps us glide over the story’s improbabilities until the play is over. Only then do we start to see the holes we have ignored. Only in hindsight do we realize that much as we may have sympathized with Bella, Bella may not be a sympathetic character at all.
There is a reason why Bella has no friends and that is because she values books more than people. If we think over what we have seen, we realize Christopher’s novel is what interests her, not Christopher himself. As a person she views him as negligible. The brilliance of O’Connell’s performance is that she captures Bella’s inherent coldness that Bella disguises as social awkwardness.
For his part Aidan Correia, making his Toronto debut, conveys all the restless energy of Christopher, one of many students who feel bound in by the constraints of formal instruction. Correia also captures the character’s paradoxical feelings of superiority and inferiority in relation to the other students. Correia makes us see Christopher as unstable and disturbed which only makes us wonder, in hindsight, how Bella, if she has any insight into people at all, could possibly ask Christopher to do something that is not only illegal, but dangerous and distressing.
Director Leora Morris paced the action well and knows how to distract our focus from the play’s bizarre flaws. Morris tries to set up some sort of symbolism by having the characters pile up five of the six drawers of Bella’s old-fashioned desk on top of each other as the action continues. What it is supposed to mean or why one of the drawers is left in its place is unknown.
Moya O’Connell is worth seeing no matter what play she is in. She has a luminous, magnetic quality that very few actors possess. Here she is able to absorb the text’s mystery and make it part of her character. To see her and her interaction with Correia is exciting in itself. Rapp’s play, however, quickly falls to pieces the moment you leave the theatre. The more you try to figure it out, the more you realize that it is a play that refers to nothing outside itself which has been deliberately constructed to be an insoluble puzzle. Were it not for O’Connell and Correia, the sound inside Rapp’s self-reflexive enigma would be emptiness.
Photo: Aidan Correia as Christopher and Moya O’Connell as Bella; Moya O’Connell as Bella and Aidan Correia as Christopher. © 2023 Tim Leyes.
For tickets visit www.coalminetheatre.com.