“Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.” This shocking line opens Nocturne by Adam Rapp, an acclaimed play that first debuted in New York in 2001. Now being presented by the Triptych Theatre Company in a guest production at the VS. Theatre in Los Angeles, this beautifully written solo performance explores the unrelenting nature of grief and guilt and the profound effect extreme tragedy can have on a life.
The nameless narrator, known simply as “the son” (Jamie Wollrab), was 17-years-old and driving down the street where he lived in suburban Illinois, returning home from his job at the local Subway, when his 9-year-old sister inexplicably ran into the road. The details of her death are gruesome, and while the son and his mother retreated into themselves in shock, his father had a far more visceral reaction. Days after the accident, he puts a loaded gun into the mouth of his own son, overcome with grief and blaming him for his daughter’s death. Narrowly escaping his own demise, the son boards an Amtrak to New York City and spends 15 years attempting to learn how to live with his demons.
He builds himself an extremely modest life in the east village, getting a job at a used bookstore and eventually a tiny apartment where the bathtub is in the kitchen. He constructs makeshift furniture out of books, which he is allowed to take for free from his job, and uses the tub to wash his handful of clothing. He buys a typewriter, which he eventually uses to write a novel based on his own life that shares its title with the play. He rarely interacts with other people and when the opportunity for romance with a “red-haired girl with gray-green eyes” presents itself, he realizes how deep his psychological torment goes, struggling with intimacy. He continues on in this quiet existence that fluctuates between something resembling contentment and deep sadness until he one day receives a letter from his long-estranged and now-dying father, asking him to come home.
Co-directed by James Eckhouse and Richard Schiff, Rapp initially wrote Nocturne as a monologue, which is how it is presented here. Wollrab addresses the audience as he tells his story on a modest set by David Mauer, consisting only of a couple pieces of furniture and three screens, behind which we see, illuminated, important objects in the son’s life such as the typewriter and the grand piano he played religiously before the accident. He leaves the stage only to carry out stacks of books to emphasize the description of his life in the city, otherwise commanding the theater for a full 90 minutes.
Nocturne is a truly beautiful piece of playwriting, the type of work you want to crawl inside in hopes of absorbing its secrets. Even if there were no set at all and you were simply listening to the story via radio or podcast, you would be able to picture everything so vividly thanks to Rapp’s imaginative, lifelike descriptions. As the son sits in the hospital after the accident with his stunned mother at his bedside, he describes his mother’s eyes as looking so raw and desperate to blink that they seem like they would be hot to touch. The words flow with a profound musicality, and Wollrab’s performance is a fine one, conveying the character’s deep pain and anguish in every moment while still finding opportunities for levity.
The writing is so stunning, in fact, that you cannot help but wonder if it may be more enjoyable to read than to watch. As a performance, there are parts that feel overwritten, where you could do without almost excessive description, regardless of how pretty the language may be. Interestingly, the original 2001 production at New York Theatre Workshop was not a one man show. Actors were cast to play the parents, the sister, and the red-haired girl, and even though they were largely silent, I can’t help but wonder how much more dynamic that version would be. As staged here, the piece is so wordy and monotonous that it unfortunately drags at times, and ultimately feels longer than 90 minutes.
By the time the extended final scene where the son reunites with his father for the first time since leaving home—”fifteen years warrants a melodramatic pause,” he says wryly as he stands unmoving in his father’s doorway, unsure how to proceed—arrives, everything is feeling a bit tedious, which is unfortunate because this sequence is arguably the most moving and poignant of the entire play. Without discussing forgiveness overtly, the interaction is heavy with emotion and regret. “Grief does not expire like a candle or a beacon on a lighthouse, it simply changes temperature,” the son laments as he ponders the stark before-and-after effect the tragic accident had on his entire family. Ultimately, such a lovely yet difficult and dense text requires thoughtful staging and innovation to remain compelling, and despite many admirable elements, this production does not quite achieve that.
Nocturne runs at the VS. Theatre in Los Angeles through Sunday, August 13th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.triptychgroup.org. Half the proceeds benefit Zeno Mountain Farm, a non-profit that hosts camps for people with and without disabilities.