Bella likes her solitude. It’s a familiar feeling for some of us, as the pandemic revealed true differences between introverts and extroverts. Veteran Chicago actor Mary Beth Fisher fully embodies Bella, her life, career and battle with a serious illness. In The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp, Goodman Theatre stages an intense drama of a relationship between two seemingly lost souls. Bella’s story begins with her long monologue about her life as author, teacher, and the narrator of her story. She’s “a middle-aged professor of undergraduate Creative Writing at a prestigious Ivy League University.” And, in the looks department, “if she’s being brutally honest with herself, she’d say she’s perhaps four or five degrees beyond mediocre….”
Bella talks to us, her audience, throughout the 90-minute play—except when she talks to Christopher (John Drea), the enigmatic freshman (he’s in her writing class) that she befriends (or who befriends her) through their shared love of writing and literature.
Live theater is back, sort of. Goodman Theatre has opened the first in a series of three plays performed live and streamed to viewers at home. The Owen Theatre has been turned into a sound stage, director Robert Falls commented in a pre-show talk. “What’s thrilling is that you can’t rewind, you can’t redo. It’s a new language for all of us.”
As The Sound Inside opens, crew members are still on stage putting final touches on lighting and sound. The large stage is virtually bare with a few cleverly modular scene spaces designed by Arnel Sancianco and highlighted by Jason Lynch’s artful lighting. Then Bella appears and speaks to us.
The teacher-student relationship between Bella and Christopher starts in a somewhat strained way, when he barges in to her office one day. “Faculty office hours are by appointment only, in advance,” she advises him. He stays; they chat; and he returns a few days later, having blocked out a two-hour appointment. Christopher’s wide and appreciative reading of a vast array of literature endears him to her and they have long conversations about writing and writers.
Bella has published three works of fiction, including a novel that was not beloved by theater critics. Christopher, who not only appreciates her class, also really likes her novel. In their first meeting he tells her that he’s going to write a novel although he’s not sure then what it will be about. But he proceeds to write and finish the novel, typing a single copy on his manual typewriter. Late in the play, he brings her the manuscript in a stationery box. He’s not fond of technology and prefers to handwrite notes in ink on paper rather than sending emails. “It’s not my thing,” he explains.
They continue to meet, in her office, sometimes in a restaurant or sitting on her living room floor drinking wine. (No, this is not a teacher-student romance, in case you were thinking of Tea and Sympathy.) By the end of the play, Bella trusts Christopher enough to ask him to perform a supreme act of kindness. The stunning ending, which blends fiction, grief and friendship, speaks to us in this pandemic year.
Both Fisher and Drea give excellent, nuanced performances. Falls’ direction uses Sancianco’s minimalist set design to stage a series of comfortable, confidential conversational settings for the two actors. Richard Woodbury’s original music and sound design create a sensitive aural backdrop. Costume design is by Mieka van der Ploeg. Christiana Tye is video director and Gabe Hatfield is director of photography.
Adam Rapp’s plays include Red Light Winter, a Jeff Award winner for Best New Work in its 2005 Steppenwolf production. The Sound Inside premiered in 2018 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and opened on Broadway in 2019, winning six Tony Award nominations. Mary Louise Parker and Will Hockman starred as Bella and Christopher in both productions.
Goodman’s Live Series continues with Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene June 17-20; and Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter’s newest work, I Hate It Here July 15-18. Lili-Anne Brown will direct. Tye and Hatfield of Hatfield Post/Production collaborate with each director to create the vision of the play for the camera medium.
You can see The Sound Inside today at 2pm and 7:30pm and the final performance tomorrow May 16 at 2pm. Tickets are $30 (or $60 for all three plays in the Live series.
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