By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association; photo by Cody Nieset
Are you missing the singular experience of attending a play performed live in front of you with everyone involved completely aware that there are no do-overs, no rewinds, no net? Well, the Goodman Theatre has not yet reopened to live audiences, but it does have the next best thing: a new production being broadcast daily (through 5/16) from its Owen Theatre stage at the same moment you are watching it at home. The only audience watching it in-house consists of the tech workers—camera operators, running, lighting and sound crews, etc.—who are needed to make it happen (and are still plenty of people to create a well-deserved final applause—another thing I’ve missed during this pandemic).
The play in question, directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, is Adam Rapp’s compelling 2018 character study/mystery The Sound Inside, presented for the first time since its Tony-nominated first run on Broadway. I caught that production, too, which featured Mary Louise Parker in the lead role here performed by Mary Beth Fisher, and I was riveted each time. Rapp structures the play as a memory presented by a Yale Creative Writing professor named Bella Lee Baird (the name reflects the playwright’s mother, Mary Lee Baird, who died of cancer in 1997—a dramaturgically interesting note for a play whose characters twist and turn around their own actual and fictional realities).
Professor Baird, who published a fairly well-received novel in the 90s (as Rapp did) and has been unable to follow it up, also has cancer, a fact that colors her blossoming (platonic) relationship with a talented but mysterious student named Christopher (John Drea) who randomly announces in class one day that he is writing a novel of his own. From the moment he barges (unannounced and unscheduled) into her office hours, Baird finds herself fascinated by his youthful energy and arrogance as well as his knowledgeable opinions on the literature she loves. Drea’s portrayal is perfect: you don’t really know whether to love this kid or want to swat him, but that’s his charm, and it’s easy to understand Baird’s growing infatuation and desire to spend more time with him as he insinuates himself into her life, which has become entirely too predictable and safe…at least until the cancer diagnosis.
Through Fisher’s brilliantly reserved and reflective interpretation of Rapp’s personal and evocative dialogue, we slip into an easy familiarity with her character that stands in contrast to the percussive and private personality of Christopher, who is clearly a young man with many secrets. Falls keeps most of their conversations quietly introspective, allowing Christopher to open up in his own time and suggesting nothing. Arnel Sancianco’s minimalist set seems equally designed not to get in the way of Rapp’s irresistible mystery as it builds, piece by piece, to a powerful climax in which Baird asks her young student for a startling and horrifying favor that alters both of their lives.
Falls couldn’t have selected a better play to begin his theatre’s three-show foray into live-but-remote stagings. (There will be two more this summer.) Rapp’s darkly personal script lends itself well to the moments in which Fisher’s character appears in lengthy close-ups, and the intimate stagings allow us to see entire sets at once without having to pull the cameras so far back that we lose the closeness of our connections to the characters. Not only that, but the disturbing ending provokes in just the right way to leave us contemplating these characters long after we’ve logged out. Chicago may not be ready for a complete reopening yet, but Falls and Goodman are making us excited for what is to come.
The Sound Inside lasts 90 minutes and is available at goodmantheatre.org through Sunday, May 16.