Amy Brenneman. Photo: Mike Palma.

The Sound Inside

Pasadena Playhouse

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Wow. What a great start to the 23/24 theatrical season in the greater LA area. To get a ticket move fast. The run is over October 1.

“The Sound Inside” is set at Yale where Bella (Amy Brenneman) is a tenured professor. In her role as narrator, she makes sure we get the tenured part, and the Yale part, straight out. We get that tenured and Yale are both impressive and important. They are her most valued assets. Her language is precise, unemotional. As a professor of creative writing she wants her students to learn to be spare, to give their readers the job of ascribing emotions to situations. With icy clarity she describes herself. You could be blind and conjure up her picture. You might wonder too, ‘what would a personal conversation with this woman be like?’ Despite her expressive clarity her solitude is palpable. She tells us she lives alone, has no children, no significant relationships. Bella cannot even recall the name of her biweekly tennis partner. She makes multiple literary references to infer personal feelings. Despite several verbal snafus opening night Brenneman is thoroughly believable as the ramrod straight, Ivy League professor with more than a touch of false humility.

Scenic Designer Tesshi Nakagawa’s sets are as spare as Bella’s descriptions, locations are suggested by as little furniture as possible. Scrims vaguely suggest spaces. As Bella retires to her “office” 18 year old Christopher (Anders Keith), a student in her freshman class, barges in and intrudes on her solitude with an air of sophomoric entitlement – who said ‘sophomoric’ cannot happen in one’s freshman year? She switches from narrator to actor. Despite her having laid down the rules in class: office hours only, send an email to arrange, etc., Christopher is there and expects to have a conversation. It does not matter that she lays out boundaries with the skill of a master mason. He disdains modern technology to the extent that he uses a manual typewriter. We wonder how he relates to other students. Christopher is obviously very bright. Bella is reluctantly drawn into a dialogue with him about his writing, her writing. She does her best to remain the authority figure in the room. It works for a while.

Anyone who has taught in the last 30 or 40 years will inevitably feel an early sense of foreboding. Those boundaries have been doubly reinforced in recent time; but there are many ways to cross boundaries. Playwright Adam Rapp skillfully suggests, but maintains suspense, making for an exciting 90 minutes of theater. Mixed with the building suspense is a smattering of dry wit. “The Sound Inside” is entertaining and intellectually engaging, even if it takes a few moments for anyone who has been out of school for a while to catch on to every literary reference.

Karen Weinstein

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