Livestreaming from the Goodman Theatre, ‘The Sound Inside’ draws close its laptop audience
In the opening lines of “The Sound Inside,” Adam Rapp’s exquisite little drama about how we spend and waste our limited lives by mostly not doing what we would prefer to do, the central character blinks out from the darkness at the audience.
Bella, a 50-ish creative-writing professor at Yale University, is telling us her story. Assuming she is a reliable narrator, which may well not be the case, it concerns her inappropriate (maybe) relationship with one of her awkwardly forward undergraduates, a self-styled Luddite freshman with a thing for David Foster Wallace. Bella, who is suffering from an aggressive cancer, has found herself suddenly refocused by her own mortality. And thus making choices she might not otherwise make and doing stuff she might not otherwise do.
Hyper self-aware, she’s a storyteller by trade (or, more accurately, mostly a reluctant coach thereof). And she knows she needs someone to listen.
So “The Sound Inside” begins with an expression of surety. Bella can’t be sure of much, but she can be sure of this. She looks out in the darkness at her audience. “As certain as old trees,” she says, a slight smile of condescension on her otherwise empathetic lips.
Sitting alone at my kitchen counter, staring at my laptop, that pulled me up short.
Audiences, we have learned these last months, are not certain at all.
I’ve seen this fantastic play three times, first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, then on Broadway and now, this weekend, in my own home, thanks to a project called the Goodman’s Live Series, an endeavor to stream productions from empty theaters while replicating some of the theater’s sense of danger and occasion by doing so in real time. It’s a gorgeous little piece, full of structural touches of Dostoevsky and very much a play for people of a certain age, those who have a keen understanding of what lies ahead as well as a cynical attitude toward the loudly expressed certainties of the young. At a time when so many dramas express the certainty of their writer, and the ignorance of the audience, on some matter or another, Rapp goes out of his way to do the opposite. Thank God for him.
The original Williamstown production, which is justly up for several Tony Awards, should the Tonys ever take place, was directed magnificently by David Cromer and starred Mary-Louise Parker. It contained a lighting design by Heather Gilbert which, for all the simplicity of the piece, is one of the best designs I ever saw. I can’t unsee the staging, of course, even though it is retreating in memory.
Goodman director Robert Falls’ production will, of course, live on, being as it takes place on digital media, live or not. The pivot to film by theater artists is a silver lining of COVID-19 in that we have seen people come up with (or refresh) new skills. On the other hand, we’re now at a moment when the vaccinated are pulling down their masks and making plans for Lollapalooza, whereas the American theater, ever gazing at its own navel, is still worried about allowing in audiences at all; these grab-your-laptop performances will, I think become tougher and tougher sells this summer as vaccinated people (in the U.S., that is) regain a sense of normalcy and other entertainment options move faster to fulfill their pent-up demand.
But I’m still glad Falls’ version of “The Sound Inside” will survive (although the live broadcasts were just this weekend). It’s a sophisticated little digital film (Christina Tye and Gabe Hatfield worked on the video aspects), preserving the theatrical aspects of the piece while adding the power of revealing close-ups and a camera that often feels like it’s probing Bella’s inner self.
Mary Beth Fisher is experienced in front of a camera and this is a deeply honest performance, intermittently powerful and fragile, as demand by the circumstances of the character. And I hope we see more of John Drea, whose work is insouciant but also reflectively of the naivety of all 18-year-olds, even the ones at Yale.
In Rapp’s hands, he grows older fast.
“The Sound Inside” streams through 2 p.m. Sunday ($30, sold out); www.goodmantheatre.org/Sound
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.