Dallas — In the opening moments of Adam Rapp’s Nocturne, a production of Second Thought Theatre playing at Bryant Hall, a man strolls out on the darkened stage to join a young girl seated at a piano. “Fifteen years ago I killed my sister” are his first words—and there it is. With this stark and disturbing declaration, we in the audience know that we are in for a different kind of theater experience, one filled with lovely pathos and pain, music both lyrical and literary, and the kind of dark-night-of-the-soul confessionary tale that will haunt you for days.
Second Thought mined Rapp’s material with great success three years ago in a killer production of Red Light Winter in their former Addison digs. Drew Wall, often a brilliant comedic sideman, stretched his dramatic range in that critically-acclaimed piece; and he shows similar talents and then some in Nocturne, where he bears the bulk of the acting load in what amounts to a solo monologue lasting one hour and 40 minutes without intermission. It is an impressive feat of actorly endurance and memorization paired with an emotional wallop.
STT Administrative Director and Associate Producer Miranda Parham, in a fine directorial debut, stages Rapp’s signature wordiness and real-time tension with an eye and especially an ear for the beauty and eloquence in the script.
Wall plays a character listed only as the Son; we later learn that he is also the narrator and the protagonist of the novel his character writes (also called Nocturne). The play is his recounting of a terrible event and its aftermath: the Son, we learn, has accidentally killed his nine-year-old sister with his beloved Buick. Wall describes the “manslaughter” and his search for solace in excruciating detail, chilling the opening night audience into weepy silence. His engaging retelling of the events afterwards also takes on the character of a slow, poetic car crash of its own.
Reading great books and working in a bookstore in the East Village are part of the Son’s healing process when he flees his devastated family. References to Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway and DeLillo are abundant, but Rapp is not just showing off his knowledge of the canon with his roll call of authors and literary references. Rapp plays upon the theme of the tortured author, who writes as a way to “escape to survive, [and to] survive to escape.”
And, yes, there is real music in this Nocturne. Home By Hovercraft’s Shawn Magill provides the soundscape and original music, and Steely Dan’s song, “Hey Nineteen” makes several effective appearances. However, it is Wall’s nuanced and varied delivery of Rapp’s words that really are the rhythmic music of the play. His is a heartfelt confession, a heartbreaking beat poem filled with irony and erudite wordplay. It is also no overstatement to aver that it is arresting, tragic, and elegiac.
Tara Magill, fresh off of her plucky turn in On the Eve at Theatre Three, plays the Sister with an innocent, ghostlike detachment that offers a charming counterpoint to Wall’s animated fervor. Associate Set Designer Seth Magill creates a simple world that supports the language of the play.
When Wall delivers the final words of the play, an image of “the rich oblivious darkness,” they echo not just inside the four walls of the theater but within our own hearts and minds, and we are far from oblivious to the pain we have just witnessed.