Yale University professor Bella Baird imagined that finding a partner meant having someone to read with limbs intertwined, both lost in a novel. In SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Sound Inside" (through Oct. 16), Bella hasn't found love just yet, or, if she has, it doesn't look the way she thought it would.
The middle-aged creative writing teacher loves language and literature with a book collection she's been curating since her 20s. Bella's a "whore for first editions," who reads James Salter's "Light Years" every fall. She refuses to teach the book because she says, "quite honestly, it is so good that it sort of enrages me." Bella, played by Jennifer Rohn (Elliot Norton Award winner for Bridge Repertory Theater’s “Dark Room”), often intersperses her dialogue with quotes from accomplished scribes and has been living in solitude for nearly two decades since her novel was published. She's been busy battling sickness and sadness. Things begin to shift when she meets an intellectually energetic student in one of her classes, Vermonter Christopher Dunn (Nathan Malin, who wowed audiences and critics alike in SpeakEasy's "Admissions").
"The Sound Inside" is a gorgeous tale by Adam Rapp that possesses an underlying sense of emptiness and loneliness throughout, amplified by the austere set cleverly lacking in color. The play had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2018, and it's Rapp's first to appear on Broadway. Rapp is currently a writer for Showtime's "American Rust" and is known for edgy plays like "Red Light Winter,” a 2006 Pulitzer finalist, and for his television work ("The Looming Tower").
In 2020, "The Sound Inside" was nominated for a Tony Award for best play, and it's easy to see why. The narrative, directed by Elliot Norton Award winner Bryn Boice, is plump with pain, yearning and twisty turns. According to her bio, Boice is "inspired by the inclusion of anyone clamoring to express themselves" in theater, making her a fitting choice to shape this show where Bella and Christopher ooze enthusiasm after they encounter one another.
Early in the story, Bella describes her mother's fight with cancer with such eloquence it makes me wince. She says that by the end, her 63-pound, blind mom didn't know her name, her breath was tinged with chemical rot, and that she "dissolved into nothingness like a patch of snow in a surprising warm winter rain."
Rohn and Malin portray their characters — both aching to be seen and befriended — with care and nuance. Malin's Christopher comes off as kind, at least to Baird, but mysterious in a thrilling sort of way. Bella is intrigued by his intellect, his boiling hate toward social media, namely Twitter, and how dissimilar he is to other students. They connect over their shared love of books and engage in free-flowing conversation. Seemingly harmless topics spark scurrility from Christopher, but Bella doesn't react much to his outbursts. She accepts him as he is, and he reciprocates. A deep intimacy burgeons that's best captured in a Dostoyevsky quote that Christopher uses as an epigraph in a story he's working on. "We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken."
This innate knowing reverberates as they share more about their lives with one another. Neither has many (or any) friends to speak of, and Christopher was recently dumped by a woman who left him for one of the Whiffenpoofs, Yale’s famous a cappella group. Being rejected for a glee club member, Christopher says, "was not emasculating at all." While Christopher toils away on his new novel, he keeps Bella updated on its progress through verbal updates. In the meantime, she tells him about her mother, her diagnosis and more.
But it's not all dark rooms and sad tales. Christopher's candor about most everything and Bella's eventful one-night stand while "Everybody Loves Raymond" played in the background spurs many laughs. The chortling gets louder when Bella shares her internal post-coital discussion.
However, an unexpected ask and unforeseen ending thrusts the story sharply in a new direction. The play delves into difficult terrain. It explores how unrealized dreams, loss and the lack of companionship can prove insufferable and encourages audiences to listen to their soul's sounds — the hum pulsing through all of us reminding us of life's possibilities.
In "Crime and Punishment," Dostoyevsky wrote that "suffering and pain are always mandatory for broad minds and deep hearts."
Indeed, the pain and suffering of Bella and Christopher cut deep into this heart of mine.
SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Sound Inside” plays through Oct. 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test and masks are required.