The eyes of Denmo Ibrahim’s Bella glitter like jewels in a cave. There’s something precious and complete unto itself inside this Yale creative writing professor, but only past a dark, lonely tunnel no one enters.
The eyes of Tyler Miclean’s Christopher, Bella’s student, seem perpetually shrouded: under floppy side-parted bangs, under a brooding brow, under Mike Post’s lighting design — which grounds the New Haven of “The Sound Inside” in the shadows of dreams, as if anyone who steps outside a small pool of light would vanish forever. Christopher is a mystery with a chip on his shoulder, the kind that dares Bella not to solve but to engage.
In Adam Rapp’s play, which opened Tuesday, May 31, at Marin Theater Company, the world is not a friendly place for literary types. That very term might conjure an image of a poser broadcasting his de ella or her de ella own erudition, and Christopher and Bella are certainly guilty of some one-upmanship over who knows Dostoevsky better when he first barges into her office hours de ella .
But even that tete-a-tete is no mere battle of snobs. In Christopher’s physical and verbal outbursts of him, in his swaggering declarations about his own novel, Bella somehow senses a kindred spirit, a fellow misfit. He’s over the top and full of life and talent; she’s quiet and small with a health crisis looming. Yet they share a simple and pure relationship with reading and writing, one not for show.
It’s not for the outside world at all, really. The rest of the planet has forsaken these two, or they do it, and now the scope of their experience is only as wide as their imagination and observation, their ability to shoehorn insight and fancy into prose. That mutual appreciation for the author’s inner life makes possible not just an unlikely friendship, but an impossible favor and a mystery that seeps out of Christopher’s in-progress book and into their lives.
Accordingly, there’s a lot of narration in “The Sound Inside,” piles of verdant, leafy text that Ibrahim especially must rake through, detailing Bella’s medical history, her family history, her bookshelves, her once rising but now fallen star as an author. Every fragment of speech is potential fruit for harvest; as she narrates, an especially felicitous line might appear scrawled behind her (Edward Haynes did the scenic design). Then Ibrahim lingers on it, assessing its plumpness, its firmness, whether it’s fit for publication one day or an overripe scrap to be discarded with a self-effacing shrug.
Directed by Jasson Minadakis, Ibrahim makes the audience into her co-conspirators and confidantes in this meeting of the minds, the silent partners whom she keeps elbowing as if to say, “Can you believe this kid?” and then, “Uh-oh, he’s found my weakness.” She seems to build a new self with each twist and swerve in the script, each forbidden urge; in her performance de ella, each moment could go in a thousand different directions, just the way real life does, and it’s a deeply human, fluttering impulse, never the writer’s heavy hand, that makes decisions.
Even as death stalks “The Sound Inside,” the show offers a life-affirming reminder that impressions, descriptions, reflections, curiosity and words are yours for the taking; that no matter how narrowly circumscribed your life is, the author’s instinct to pin down and create and the reader’s satisfaction in witnessing and feeling are available to all of us. If we’re lucky, for an instant, we might find a like-minded soul with whom to share such pleasures. Most of the time, we’re just imagining ourselves in someone else’s story.
M“The Sound Inside”: Written by Adam Rapp. Directed by Jason Minadakis. Through June 19. One hour, 40 minutes. $25-$60. Marin Theater Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415-388-5208. marinetheatre.org