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At first, Ellis (William Apps) seems little more than a maladroit nebbish, as he obsessively prepares for an obviously auspicious meeting in his beyond drab digs. When two wary teenagers arrive, Monique (Christina Elmore) harangues him aggressively with a bravado that may have some real threat behind it. Her friend, the more mousey and tentative Catherine (Virginia Veale), appears to have more at stake, as Monique assumes all initiative as her protector.
They have their reasons, and far more than they imagined. Ellis has committed horrendous acts for which his bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes may provide a legal, social or moral excuse but which cannot exempt him from guilt, remorse or the enduring distrust of others and of himself. This is one of those plays told in real time in which secrets are revealed at well-paced intervals, not for dramatic surprise or narrative manipulation but to provide a means for the audience to share the various perceptions of all the characters as each appalling truth is exposed.
The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is being produced by South Coast Repertory as part of its nationally influential Pacific Playwrights Festival, now in its 17th year, which includes myriad readings and workshops featuring both established and emerging writers and this year this single full production.
The play shares with other works by Adam Rapp the transgressive subject of afflicted people confronting the consequences of their unforgivable actions with all the inevitably limited honesty they can muster, and how despite heinous deeds, bonds of empathy can be forged between the mutually damaged. He takes us to a place of conditional compassion where we would otherwise be unlikely to venture. It may not feel good, but it feel necessary, and therefore invaluable.
It also makes his plays tricky to execute unless fidelity to text is absolute and the actors hold back nothing of themselves even as their characters are compulsively doing just that. Rapp had a rapturous success at Rogue Machine with his Blackbird, deservedly sweeping local awards and productions nationwide, and this play is both less ambitious and less thoroughly achieved. This was its first mounting (nervous writer in the back row), presumably under less than extensive rehearsal and subject to future revision, but the results are nevertheless impeccable under the direction of Crispin Whittell.
The quartet of actors all find the cores of their characters even as we observe those characters engaging in that very process. Ellis must be irretrievably pathetic, innately empathetic, and convincingly terrifying, a considerable hat trick Apps aptly pulls off. The two women may be young but their chops are well-developed, and while their characters may be more simply conceived, Rapp has built sufficient suggestions of their potential complexity that they handle with great grace under pressure. Even in a small if pivotal part, Connor Barrett as Ellis’ nurse (also named Barrett) brings a meaningful conviction and inner strength, with just the right dash of his own insecurities.
In short, an auspicious unveiling of a new text that expands the author’s range and should continue to build an afterlife for itself, just as it offers the modest prospect of the same for Ellis and Catherine.
Venue: South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (runs through May 4)
Cast: William Apps, Christina Elmore, Virginia Veale, Connor Barrett
Director: Crispin Whittell
Playwright: Adam Rapp
Set & costume designer: Sara Ryung Clement
Lighting designer: Adam J. Frank
Sound designer: Corinne Carrillo
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