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SCRUTINY | Coal Mine Gives Wordsmith Rapp’s The Sound Inside A ‘Perfect’ Production

By Paula Citron on May 16, 2023

Moya O'Connell and Aidan Correia in The Sound Inside (Photo: Tim Leyes)
Moya O’Connell and Aidan Correia in The Sound Inside (Photo: Tim Leyes)

Coal Mine Theatre/The Sound Inside, written by Adam Rapp, directed by Leora Morris, Coal Mine Theatre, May 7 to May 28. Tickets here.

The Sound Inside (2018) — I am absolutely in awe of this play by prolific American wordsmith Adam Rapp.

I’m hard pressed to remember text that is so literate, so accomplished, so intelligent, so sophisticated, and so knowledgeable. The Sound Inside was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2020, but it didn’t win, and I find that hard to believe.

When I say wordsmith, I mean exactly that, because Rapp has penned a plenitude of plays, novels, young adult novels, and scripts for television and film. He is also a film and stage director with a side line as a musician. We are dealing here with a polymath of epic proportions.

The storyline of The Sound Inside is bleak, as Rapp, it seems, is drawn to the dark side of things. This two-hander presents us with Bella Lee Baird (Moya O’Connell), a 50-ish tenured professor of creative writing at Yale University, and her tangled relationship with a talented if troubled 19-year-old student, Christopher Dunn (Aidan Correia).

Both of them are outcasts. No friends, no lovers, practically no life, but they are both, it would seem, gifted writers. Bella has written two volumes of short stories and an underappreciated novel, while Christopher is working on his own novel. Bella lets Christopher into her life because she believes he is a prodigy, even though he has forced his attentions on her like a bull in a china shop.

Moya O'Connell in The Sound Inside (Photo: Tim Leyes)
Moya O’Connell in The Sound Inside (Photo: Tim Leyes)

What Rapp has done in terms of wordsmithing within this play is a phenomenal achievement. Both characters admire each other’s writing, and we do get to hear excerpts from both Bella’s and Christopher’s novels. So, in effect, Rapp has written two novels within the text of the play, which is mindboggling in the least.

The two also toss off literary references within the natural confines of conversation, and if you want a summer reading list, the authors and books mentioned in The Sound Inside would make an impressive one indeed. Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Beckett, Wharton, and James Salter, to mention but a few.

Yet Rapp’s obvious knowledge of distinguished men and women of letters is never pompous. He never makes the audience feel small because we are not as well-read as Bella and Christopher. Rather, we accept the fact that the two characters love language, and they revel in it. It is part and parcel of who they are. Rapp also throws in literary philosophy for good measure — in other words, the art of writing itself.

There is a slim plot within the play, and this is not giving anything away. We find out early on that Bella has stomach cancer, which becomes her driver, and Christopher is the only one she tells outside of her department head. Bella also suffers from writer’s block, while Christopher is sailing ahead full speed on his novel.

The tension that Rapp creates is masterful. What will happen? Will they become lovers? Will jealousy become a great divide? How will the grim reaper play a part in the plot? Bella’s favourite book is Light Years by James Salter, while Christopher is obsessed with Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and therefore, the anti-hero Raskolnikov. The latter made me wonder, will Christopher become a killer as well?

Kudos to director Leora Morris for making this tension palpable, and, in fact, for her minimal concept for the presentation of the play, which is really a play for the mind. The set is uncluttered so that Rapp’s words can dominate the stage. Set, lighting and prop designer Wes Babcock has come up with a platform on which sits a desk and chair. His lighting is pin spot, but never intrusive.

Another chair, a rug, a blanket, a wine bottle and glasses are added later on, while desk drawers are taken out and stacked at various angles as a metaphor for complication. Throughout the play, the two characters move the position of the desk and chairs to indicate the passage of time. It is elegantly simple yet very effective, as are Laura Delchiaro’s character-driven costumes, and Chris Ross-Ewart’s ominous sound design.

Rapp’s writing style is narration, mostly carried by Bella, but with scenes between the two thrown in for good measure. What is fascinating is when two narratives, spoken in alternation, show two different sides of the same situation.

Moya O'Connell and Aidan Correia in The Sound Inside (Photo: Tim Leyes)
Moya O’Connell and Aidan Correia in The Sound Inside (Photo: Tim Leyes)

Which brings us to the actors.

O’Connell delighted us for years at the Shaw Festival and is a consummate player. She invests herself in Bella absolutely in a brilliant performance. She has a sense of self-irony that is acute, and which broadens our understanding of her persona. Most importantly, she speaks Rapp’s many words in marvellous, easy fashion. O’Connell and language become one, but we also know the inner turmoil of those words, as she majestically conveys both the interior and exterior of Bella.

Correia is a Vancouver-based actor, so he is new territory for Toronto audiences. He is a gifted performer, but at times he loses words with his bombastic delivery, although that very bombast is so integral to his character. In contrast to Bella’s almost repressed demeanor, his Christopher rides the tide of teenage know-it-all-ism. He understands the world better than any adult. Correia also adds in that off-kilter layering of a bright but frightening personality.

In short, he and Bella are the perfect foils for each other.

And I’d like to pick up on the word perfect, because that is what this production of The Sound Within is. Perfection.


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Paula Citron
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