A relationship staple in the catalog of dramatic themes is that of professor and student. Traditionally, the professor is a man who takes sexual or emotional advantage of a female student, but that formula has diversified in recent decades. Perhaps a theatrical watershed was David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander “Oleanna,” which reflected the sea change in universities’ policies in adjudicating teacher/student harassment claims. Previously, the professor had been assumed, or at least treated, as truthful and innocent, and the student was hung out to dry. Under new rules at many institutions, a professor was assumed guilty until proven innocent in a harassment accusation from a student unless contact was in public places.
These policy shifts were part of major realignment of the power structure between professor and student. Abetted by new technologies, professors became more accessible and were to be responsive at virtually any time. Because of a new emphasis on students’ evaluations of teacher performance, students would hold a stronger hand than ever before. In this environment, Adam Rapp has also written a two-hander, “The Sound Inside,” a taut relationship drama that takes on characteristics of a mystery or thriller.
Bella Baird is a tenured professor. Portrayed with supreme skill and compassion by Denmo Ibrahim, she introduces herself to the audience as a teacher of undergraduate creative writing at Yale University. Ultimately, we learn that she is 53 years old and never married; loves her job; had a modicum of success writing published fiction; and is enamored of speaking and writing in lengthy, wandering sentences that she cautions her students to avoid.
Christopher Dunn, deftly played by Tyler Miclean, is a Yale freshman. His outerwear is a thin filling-station jacket that will be his only protection in the dead of winter, but when questioned about it, he demurs, noting “I’m from Vermont.” Bright and highly literate, his mind and tongue are quick. He reveals his brashness when responding in class to a tract in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Unlike his modest classmates, he announces “Someday, I’m going to write a great moment like that.”
Christopher appears at Bella’s office without notice. In addition to ignoring the university’s appointment scheduling software, the near Luddite doesn’t use email or social media, and while he has a computer, he composes on a manual typewriter. Though his self-indulgent behavior disrespects the professor’s authority, he is inspired by her teaching and writing, and she appreciates his nimble thinking and lofty goals. He is also writing a novel, and she is transfixed by both the youthful ambition and the clever narrative he has devised.
So begins a relationship outside normal boundaries, meeting at her office, at restaurants, and at her home. Rapp writes exchanges that are frank, and Miclean often snarls Christopher’s crass and fractious comments. Conversely, Ibrahim displays delicacy as she weighs the consequences of censoring him and perhaps snuffing his spontaneity and their connection. Several threads beyond their writing define the bonding. They share appreciation of James Salter’s “Light Years” as well as “Crime and Punishment” and its evil but complex and somewhat redemptive main character, Raskolnikov.
But they are also loners, and Christopher confronts Bella by asking why she doesn’t have any friends. She admits that she stopped liking people, and Ibrahim is completely convincing in her depiction of Bella as resigned, but adjusted and happy in her skin. Miclean is disquieting when exposing Christopher’s angst. Also antisocial, but somewhat unstable, he goes ballistic when Bella insists that following rules is important even in the relative freedom of academe. Despite their shared interests and long time together, when Bella asks Christopher for a favor that could only be expected from a true intimate, he responds, “But you even don’t know me.” And the truth is that she doesn’t know the most basic of things about him, such as his middle name.
As is appropriate in a play focused on literature, Rapp endows his characters with erudite language and astute metaphors. This is good news for theatergoers who appreciate language as a blessing and a gauge of civilization, but maybe bad news for the marketability of the play. Many prospective theater goers could find the perceived pompousness and dark elements, including existential threats, as intellectually satisfying but not entertaining as such. This is unfortunate, because the play is compelling and unpredictable from beginning to end, covering a wide range of human issues. And if the reader thinks they know the story from this review, think again. This is but an introduction to a dense and provocative 90 minutes of taut and memorable drama.
Marin Theatre’s production of “The Sound Inside,” masterfully directed by Jasson Minadakis and with two outstanding performances, meets the highest theatrical standards.
“The Sound Inside” is written by Adam Rapp, produced by Marin Theatre Company, and plays on its stage at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA through June 16, 2022.