Aside from taking a very deep breath, the first thing I did after watching Adam Rapp’s play, “The Sound Inside”—one of three livestreamed productions in the new Goodman Theatre LIVE series—was to return to the following iconic quote from “Howards End,” by the English novelist E. M. Forster:
“Only connect! That was her whole sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”
While it is a bristling discussion of the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and his novel, “Crime and Punishment,” that sets Rapp’s play in motion, it is Forster’s words that nail the essence of the playwright’s story about the brief but harrowing relationship between Bella (Mary Beth Fisher), a lonely, middle-aged Yale professor and author who teaches a course in creative writing, and her intense, gifted, profoundly alienated freshman student, Christopher (John Drea).
Performed on the Goodman’s Owen stage, directed by Robert Falls, and featuring fine work by Christiana Tye (video director) and Gabe Hatfield (director of photography), the 90-minute play (which debuted in 2018, and arrived on Broadway the following year under the direction of David Cromer), came into being about a year or so before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. But with its sense of painful isolation and disconnection (and Rapp is a stunning writer, alternately searing, sardonic and feverishly emotional) it conjures what seems like a perfect metaphor for this moment. And both Fisher, the ever-impeccable Chicago stage veteran, and Drea, a young and supremely talented Chicago-bred actor, are an ideal match—brainy, intensely focused, and possessed of a knife-sharp feel for language that is just what is needed for Rapp’s cutting yet often poetic language, and for the self-deprecating riffs he has crafted for both his characters.
While Bella and Christopher initially forge a tense but provocative bond during a teacher-student meeting in which they banter about Dostoyevsky and his tormented character, Raskolnikov, they also sense a certain instant mutual understanding. Both are outsiders, alienated from other people (and in some sense from themselves). Bella, 57, is unmarried and childless, extremely self-aware, and has never found the right man. Christopher is brilliant, sensitive and more or less friendless. Both are self-denigrating loners, but also not without a certain sense of their own fragile exceptionalism. And both are writers who, in their particular ways, walk a thin line between life and death, and hope and despair, are hungry for literary success, and above all, are starved for a potent connection to another human being. Over the course of several months, and despite their professor/student status, they bond in unexpected and powerful ways.
Without giving away too much, it is enough to say that Bella is suddenly diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer, rejects chemotherapy, and recruits Christopher to administer end-of-life procedures. I will go no further except to say that “The Sound Inside” will echo loudly in your consciousness for a long time to come. And perhaps it is most fitting to end here with a quote from Dostoyevsky: “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
Rapp’s play will run through May 16 only. Next up in the series will be Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” (running June 17-20) and Ike Holter’s “I Hate It Here” (July 15-18). For tickets visit: GoodmanTheatre.org/Live.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic