Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois **

Based on my reaction to earlier plays by Adam Rapp (Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, The Hallway Trilogy, Red Light Winter), my expectations for his current play at Atlantic Stage 2 were low. To my great surprise, I found it both involving and touching. In Ellis (a superb William Apps), Rapp presents a man who has bipolar disease with psychosis, who has done some horrible things who commands both our fear and our compassion. When we meet him, he is nervously preparing to receive guests. His visitors turn out to be a pair of teenage girls, Monique (an irresistibly watchable Susan Heyward), a trash-talking 15-year old African-American girl and Catherine (Katherine Reis), a shy 13-year-old with asthma and IBS. Monique has “borrowed” her aunt’s driver’s license to drive Catherine to meet Ellis. We eventually learn who Catherine is and why she is there. The trio are joined by Barrett (Connor Barrett), who has enabled Ellis and Catherine to make contact online. Ellis’s attempt to hold it together falters, with frightening results. The visit concludes on a slightly hopeful note. Andromache Chalfant's generic apartment set is grimly realistic and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. The playwright directed with assurance. The play has some slow moments. If Heyward were not such a stage presence, I would have found her character an annoying cliche. Barrett’s role is a bit underwritten. Despite its shortcomings, the play succeeds in taking us to a place that we probably never wanted to go while getting us to care about someone we would rather dismiss. The audience reaction was quite mixed. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes; no intermission. NOTE. Avoid Row A; it’s behind row AA and not elevated.

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