Jarrott Productions’ “The Sound Inside” by Adam Rapp at Ground Floor Theatre follows Bella Baird (Rebecca Robinson), a Yale creative writing professor facing a cancer diagnosis. Although she’s a loner more invested in books than relationships, she connects with freshman Christopher Dunn (Tucker Shepherd), an aspiring novelist enrolled in one of her classes. Their conversations and deepening friendship form the basis of the play’s plot, but the drama is ultimately dark, tinged with cold, loneliness, and violence.
Christopher is an over-confident, ambitious 19-year-old who’s too cool for email, but charming enough that his constant literary name dropping is forgivable. Bella is insecure and completely unattached outside of her faculty appointment. She quickly warms to Christopher despite his abrasiveness and tendency to rant, forgoing the normal teacher-student distance.
In her early conversations with Christopher, they analyze Raskolnikov’s murders in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” introducing a pervasive theme of death and amorality that is echoed in Bella’s dark thoughts and Christopher’s own writing. Over a series of office hour visits and dinners, he relates the story he’s working on, which is about a student very much like himself who commits a murder on a trip to New York and then continues on with his life..
As their relationship deepens, she learns about his parents, his crush and other details, but the relationship between Christopher and Bella is more than the typical academic mentor-mentee. Instead, there’s an awkward tension and danger between them that threatens to turn romantic, driven by Bella’s insecurity and apparent inability to see through, or her escapist impulse to ignore Christopher’s youthful lack of experience.
Bella speaks directly to the audience at moments throughout the play, narrating her feelings and the offstage action of her life. Her special intimacy with the audience allows for eloquent discussion of difficult topics. In her soliloquies, Bella relates experiences of physical pain, describes her mothers’ death, and recounts disappointing hookups with wry humor.
As she talks, she drifts across the stage from location to location, on a set designed by Zane Bares composed of a series of small suggested locations spread across Ground Floor Theatre’s wide playing space. It is bordered by white-barked leafless trees that link the otherwise disconnected sections.
Scared by the prospect of slowly fading away due to her advanced cancer and aggressive chemotherapy, Bella plans to die by assisted suicide and orders lethal chemicals. Convinced he can handle it, she seeks Christopher’s help. In a climactic confrontation, he dodges her request, then seems to acquiesce. But while Bella survives the play, Christopher does not.
Bella’s desire to die is treated without judgment, and she repeatedly confirms that she completely understands her choice. Christopher’s death is more mysterious, in part because he does not communicate directly with the audience as Bella does, but also because the only details given of this offstage scene are literary symbols from across the play. The language and references to books, themes, and imagery throughout the play underscore that these characters are just characters, and while they are relating their own stories, it is a story by playwright Rapp that we are really watching.
Under David R. Jarrott’s direction, every moment has weight, and the long sections in which the characters read aloud from their novels remain dramatized. The sound design by Craig Brock creates an overwhelming atmosphere of suspense, and a subtle projection design from Lowell Bartholomee adds poignancy to the final stage picture.
Ultimately, the play is a writerly character study, in which stories allow for connections between people, express the disturbing elements of the human psyche, and are the legacies people leave behind
“The Sound Inside” continues through at Jan. 28 at Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale Road, jarrottproductions.com
If you or someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.