Boca Stage had announced its current production of Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” as a “bonus show”—an off-season add-on following the completion of the company’s traditional four-play season. Perhaps it was scheduled this way as a gift to the year-rounders, because the snowbirds who have already flocked off to pleasanter climes have missed one of the very best productions in the company’s history.
From its revelatory lead performance to its superlative lighting, sound and direction, this haunting treatment of a slippery modern masterpiece exemplifies why we attend live theatre. Were the company still in the Carbonell game, this is a work that surely would be on the shortlist in many categories.
The play itself arrives for its South Florida regional debut bearing impressive bona fides. Its Broadway premiere earned six Tony nominations in 2020, including for Best Play. Rapp’s writing brims with precise, novelistic detail, with Yale writing professor Bella Baird (an extraordinary Kim Ostrenko) describing the “arthritic trees” in the snow-blanketed New Haven Green—and the “constellation of tumors” eating away at her stomach after she’s diagnosed with Stage II cancer.
Much of this information is narrated directly to us, with Ostrenko displaying a marvelous, deeply felt and infectious command of the material. Her character’s exuberance for great literature (“I’m a whore for first editions”) permeates the fourth wall, as does her description of watching her mother succumb to the very disease she now carries. For people who have lost relatives to cancer, “The Sound Inside” paints such vivid imagery through words and performance that it can be almost nauseating to watch. This is a compliment, of course.
Such is Ostrenko’s ownership of the stage that the play feels like a solo show occasionally disrupted by an interloper. Given the twists the story takes, I believe this to be an intentional device rather than a slight to the qualified presence and abilities of supporting player Jordon Armstrong.
He plays Christopher Dunn, a student, in Bella’s undergraduate creative writing course, of unusual ambition and chutzpah. Bella tells us that he shocked her class by exclaiming, from his perch in the back of the hall, that he was going to write a scene as powerful as one in “Crime and Punishment.” Then he shows up at her office door, unannounced, and enters if he owns the place—as if they share the quarters—and the play oscillates between Bella’s direct narration and a conversation with her unexpected visitor, directed by Keith Garsson as if they’re in the same room but of two different worlds, she unable to take her eyes from this young force of nature, he staring straight at us. It’s an unsettling dynamic, one far from “realism,” and it suits the material.
The characters’ closeness intensifies, though not in the way you might expect. Christopher is writing a novel, a work of seeming autofiction, and with each successive encounter with Bella, he shares more of its progression, hooking his audience of one—and us—with every riveting detail. Like an addict seeking her fix, she continues to arrange meetings, their connection not so much sexual as it is creative, until Christopher’s novel, and Bella’s debilitating disease, collide in a mesmerizing third act.
If this show reads like a perpetually heavy experience, I’m being remiss. Rapp’s play is spiked with humor, even during its heftiest moments. There’s even a hilarious, tour de force sex scene between Ostrenko and an unseen hookup that ranks among the actor’s career highlights. She captures the grunting, “assembly line” nature of the perfunctory coitus, her head darting around her companion’s invisible body to watch the “Everybody Loves Raymond” rerun he left playing on the hotel television. (This detail is among Rapp’s strokes of genius. Not that I would ever debase myself by watching “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but if I did, this would kill it for me.)
The comic relief notwithstanding, Boca Stage’s carefully atmospheric production deploys everything in its disposal to establish an eerie vibe. Bravura touches from lighting designer Tom Shorrock include a darkened stage illuminated only by compact spotlights beaming down on Ostrenko and Armstrong; and a cinematically lit Armstrong, during one of his storytelling sessions, his face bisected in shades of blue and gold. Contributions from sound designer David Hart include the staccato screech of cicadas, and the key title line—scribbled ad nauseum by Bella as part of a writing exercise in her class—that reverberates in her head and out to the audience in a delirious feedback loop.
It all culminates in a finale that is literally breathtaking; I was only reminded to exhale at the pull of the curtain. Much is left to interpretation, and in my fumbling desire to grasp at the ineffable, this is the rare production that I wanted to re-watch as soon as it ended.
“The Sound Inside” runs through Sunday at Boca Stage, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets run $40-$50. Call 561/300-0152 or visit primalforces.com.