… holding on …
Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is a tense, brilliant drama that takes you from the worst to the best.
From the first moment we see Ellis, a man in his 40’s in khakis and a plaid shirt, agonizing over deodorant and picking invisible dirt out of the rug, we know that he’s crazily over-anxious about expected visitors, erratically nutty, and trying to seem “OK” like other men. When two teenage girls arrive, Monique, a Black, fast-talking self-defined “gangsta,” and Catherine, White, thin, on edge, who seems unable to look anybody in the eye, you think you’ve snagged it. He’s got himself a pair of over-young girls for sex. Monique appears obviously in charge of Catherine who seems barely able to speak and Monique had made the contact with Ellis. Monique dangerously dominates Catherine — It looks like we’re headed toward a grisly destruction of innocence.
Rapp does keep you on the edge of your seat – or thinking you might do better not to watch. But surprisingly Catherine, who seemed so morbidly shy and ashamed, takes charge. She tells Monique she wants to be alone with Ellis, sending Monique off to wait in the bedroom. We realize it’s Catherine, not Monique nor Ellis, who made this meeting happen (with some help from Facebook) but we’re not sure why. Monique, somewhat apprehensive for her friend, disappears into the bedroom.
Powerful relationships are revealed. I won’t spell them out because it’s part of the suspense. I can say that Catherine, who seemed a beleaguered, dominated girl of low intelligence, turns out to be quite a person who, at thirteen, has clear career plans to become a graphic novelist plus a plan to enable her to get to art camp in the coming summer. She’s filled with admirable purpose. And when you consider the steps she has taken in this play to get what and where she wants, and how well she succeeds by the end of it, you feel she has every chance to make it.
But what about Ellis? The more we learn about his propensity to violence and then, specifically, about the terrible thing he’s done, the more certain it seems that there’s no way Catherine can hold on to the relationship she’s bravely sought from him, in fact, no way she (nor the audience) can forgive him. Wrong again.
Catherine keeps seeking: she doesn’t give up on Ellis. And Adam Rapp has more to say about him. You think he’s done the worst thing possible – but there’s another way to look at it. We come to understand, partly through information from Barrett, Ellis’s visiting nurse, that while the play has confronted us with mortal violence and visible brutality to make you wince – not only from Ellis — we haven’t witnessed evil. Catherine holds on, and we learn from this thirteen-year old girl: don’t be so fast the judge others.
The acting and directing are extraordinary. In the role of Ellis, William Apps is completely convincing as an ordinary nice looking man struggling against his demons to maintain that semblance of conventionality and composure. This is a great performance. Katherine Reis conveys the several purposes and emotions in her young woman’s heart with fascinating subtlety. Nothing is missed: hers, too, is a great performance.
Susan Heyward is terrific as the all-out Monique, dancing, slanging, transgressive, but with a bottom line of decency that needs some prodding from Barrett, played by Connor Barrett, guardian angel on hand – and what is a guardian angel after all? A mature person with the skill to defuse destructive directions and enable fulfillment.
Adromache Chalfant’s set of Ellis’s modest home, with lighting by Keith Parham, is a checklist of bare minimum: living room with sofa, table, lamp, pale flower picture on the wall needing color, needing love. The beige rug is a portrait of Ellis’s state of being, washed, rubbed, scrubbed, cleaned hard, but with a ghostly stubborn stain.
I have to thank Adam Rapp: he has given me not one but two outstanding theater experiences in a single year, The Purple Lights Of Joppa Illinois, and his play Wolf In The River, which has just ended its run at The Flea theater, reviewed here. Rapp writes with revelatory sympathy and great humanity about those who live on the margins of society, their relationship to the more conventional, centrist world, and about the possibility of transcendence. You don’t expect dramas as saturated with brutality as Rapp’s to be inspiring but they are. I enjoyed the mythic expansiveness of Wolf In The River; The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is more spare: both are powerful.
In The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, we worry when things don’t seem to be going well for the characters, we’re relieved when they do, and we’re inspired by their determination to love. Rapp uses brutality not just for sensationalism (though that’s there), but to take you to a deeper understanding. The sense that that we ourselves may be at fault, that — in contrast to Catherine — we’re too quick to think the worst of others, heightens the impact of the stunning, breathtaking ending. I felt changed.
Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois plays at the Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through June 26, 2016. For more information and tickets, click here.