The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois
Review by Ken Kaissar
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 26 June 2016
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street NYC
BOTTOM LINE: Incredibly detailed writing and acting make this new play a must-see.
Adam Rapp’s characters are alive. The thoughts and words that he writes for them are so complete, specific and humanly random that you can’t help but feel the blood pounding in their veins through the language. His ability to imagine and capture characters so thoroughly is astonishing and distinguishes him as one of our great contemporary writers.
In this production, Rapp's play is performed by a virtuoso four-person cast that includes William Apps, Susan Heyward, Katherine Reis and Connor Barrett. To say there’s not a weak link is an understatement; every single moment in the show is compelling, organic and truthful. The detailed acting work matches, even perhaps surpasses, Rapp’s exquisite writing. This cast is devastatingly believable. Each one of them will unnerve you from their first entrance and take you on a ride you never see coming.
Ellis (William Apps) is a troubled 41 year-old who has just been released from a psychiatric correctional facility. As the play begins, he prepares his apartment with obsessive-compulsive attention to detail for the arrival of a very special visitor. The visitor turns out to be a 13 year-old girl named Catherine (Katherine Reis) and her slightly older companion Monique (Susan Heyward). Perhaps you’ve already figured out why a 13 year-old needs to visit a disturbed man in his forties. But no matter. It’s a reveal that comes relatively early in the play and only sets up the volatile ride that quickly flies off the tracks.
Heyward and Reis are incredible as a teenage duo. I have to surmise that they’re not really as young as they’re playing, but I can’t be sure. They are equipped with fierce teenage anger that suggests that they’re tired of being treated like children. They wage war on their own naiveté armed with a sophisticated vocabulary, precocious knowledge of useless trivia and an obstinate refusal to be messed with.
Andromache Chalfant’s excellent set design brings to life a depressingly simple and inexpensive rental apartment. Again, the attention to detail here is impeccable, down to the water damage in the dry wall.
Directed by Rapp, the play has the same emotional life as its unstable central character. It oscillates between being howlingly funny and profoundly sad. This emotional rollercoaster of a play will not disappoint.
You may be a bit concerned at the beginning when Rapp forces the audience to listen to a song (played on a turntable) in its entirety before allowing the action to continue. But it’s moments like these that allow his actors to shine. Each of them speaks volumes about their characters by the manner in which they listen to the song, and we learn so much by gazing at them for three whole minutes. These are consummate professionals who know how to infuse action into their inaction. To those theatre artists watching who are now inspired to force audiences to listen to entire songs on stage: please don’t. In other words, these are skilled professionals. Don’t try this at home.
(The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois plays at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, through June 26, 2016. The running time is 90 minutes without intermission. Performances are Tuesdays thru Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:30 and 7:30; and Sundays at 2:30. Tickets are $40 for members or $50 for non-members and are available at atlantictheater.org.)
The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is written and directed by Adam Rapp. Set Design is by Andromache Chalfant. Costume Design is by Jessica Pabst. Lighting Design is by Keith Parham. Sound Design is by Christian Frederickson. Stage Manager is Jillian M. Oliver.
The cast is William Apps, Susan Heyward, Katherine Reis, and Connor Barrett.
Check out Theasy.com for more theatre reviews.