It is no accident that Bella Baird, the central figure in Adam Rapp’s compelling, though arch, play The Sound Inside, is a professor of creative writing at Yale University. For Rapp, himself a former novelist, needed a character obsessed with literature, meticulous with words, someone whose self-conscious dialogue sounds carefully composed, as if written down before it is spoken. Which, of course, it is.
As Bella, a mournful Kim Ostrenko draws the audience in from her opening extended monologue, in which she violates the rules she sets down for her students. Never introduce your characters with too much detail, she tells them, yet she insists on telling us of her food preferences, her family background, her unsuccessful novel and, most significantly, the cancer that is coursing through her body.
Narration, you see, is a prime conveyor of information in The Sound Inside, both from Bella and the play’s only other character, freshman Christopher Dunn (Jordan Armstrong), a talented student of hers with whom she forges an intimate relationship, though not the sort you probably expect.
We first meet Christopher when he comes to Bella during her office hours, but without an appointment, a serious and seriously annoying breach of her protocol. Still, she becomes intrigued by his precocious announcement that he is writing a novel and by his recitation of its events, as far as he knows them.
Conspiratorially, Rapp includes the audience in Bella and Christopher’s conversations. Responding to his personal quirks — for instance, he has a personal aversion to email — Bella will turn to us and comment, as if he were not in the room. There is a lot of this interior monologue — this “sound inside” – which should feel stilted, but instead has a natural sense, thanks to the two skilled performers at Boca Stage.
Bella and Christopher name-drop many an author, particularly those who famously committed suicide, from Virginia Woolf to Jerzy Kosinski to David Foster Wallace. It is no idle subject, as Bella contemplates her own death as the cancer and its accompanying pain intensifies. Bella will ask Christopher for an ultimate favor of friendship, to assist in her suicide, which he begrudgingly agrees to if she will read his completed manuscript. His novel is called To Lie Face Down in a Field of Snow, a title fraught with foreshadowing.
Another author hovering over the play is Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose Crime and Punishment is a constant teaching example in Bella’s class and a template for Christopher’s novel. The more that The Sound Inside progresses, the emotionally darker it becomes, it harkens back to the murky, ambiguous works with which Boca Stage first made its reputation, a couple of company names ago. Then as now, artistic director Keith Garsson has staged such unconventional selections with a knowing, muscular touch.
With The Sound Inside, he is substantially aided by his two-member cast. Ostrenko’s Bella is the showier role, which brought Mary Louise Parker a Tony Award when the play premiered on Broadway in 2019. Blonde-ringleted Ostrenko brings an understated verbal dexterity to her monologues, making a connection with the audience that helps to sustain our interest, even as the writing grows increasingly self-aware. Much of the time she strikes a somber tone, but a sequence involving an out-of-character one-night-stand with a contractor she picks up in a bar in an amusing highlight of the production.
As Christopher, Armstrong does not have as bravura a role, but he manages to earn our empathy, even as we wonder about the character’s authenticity. More importantly, he is a consummate storyteller. We lean in at rapt attention with each recited snippet of his novel.
Ultimately, The Sound Inside doubles back on itself, a satisfying literary journey slightly less than 90 intermissionless minutes in length, for those with an affection for words and performance.
THE SOUND INSIDE, Boca Stage at Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton. $40-$50. Through Sun., May 15. 561-300-0157, or visit primalforces.com.