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Theater Review:

Naked Eye Theatre Company’s "NOCTURNE" at the Storefront Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

Grieving is often described as a process that transcends words. But, in "Nocturne," Chicago-born playwright Adam Rapp addresses this un-consolable sense of loss with a ruptured-faucet flow of words so achingly vivid they have the power to confront grief head on while dousing one in a gently anguished state of comfort.

Rapp is not content to burrow deep inside language. Instead he wraps himself around the textures and rhythms of the words and, like the piano theme running throughout this bittersweet drama, he gets carried away by the alternating smooth and agitated melodies that measure the timbre of the human heart in irreversible despair.

"Nocturne" – receiving its Midwest premiere by Naked Eye Theatre Company at the Storefront Theater – chronicles the breakdown of a middle-class Joliet family after the "Narrator" – who was 17 at the time -- accidentally ran over his 9-year-old sister. She darted into the street just as the Narrator was driving home from work on a hot summer day. While gruesome in its descriptions of the little girl’s decapitation, "Nocturne" maintains an astute, profoundly reflective – even wryly perceptive – tone that never flirts with sensationalism.

Director Jeremy B. Cohen masterfully "conducts" the quietly electrifying and emotionally generous Chicago actor Lance Baker in a one-man rhapsody of regret and bruised hope. Baker’s damaged but non-self-pitying character brings to exquisite life a story of death that extends to a slowly crushing demise of the human spirit long before his sister is killed.

"Nocturne" is set 15 years after the "collision." We learn of the Narrator’s mother’s subsequent insanity and his father’s blunted will to go on. We follow the Narrator as he runs away to New York City, where he seeks refuge in a used bookstore and heeds the call of his Underwood typewriter – eventually publishing a fairly well-received novel that doesn’t sell well. He shares the details of an unconsummated romantic relationship, his impotence and his fear of riding in cars. We are with him when he returns home to see his dying father. We move with him into an uncertain future as the Narrator slowly loosens the shackles of guilt and wipes away a hazy emptiness of the soul.

Yet, through it all, the audience is able to take its own journey of self-examination. We begin to reconstruct our personal memories. The playwright is capable of floating outside his immediate story to suggest the numbing effects of the menial trappings of daily lives embroiled in a sort of wheel-spinning minutia. We’re left questioning what matters in life and how, in the midst of blindly fulfilling certain societal expectations, we fall out of touch with those closest to us.

Rapp also dissects the act of writing itself – exploring the multiple and paradoxical meanings of the word "kill," for instance, and commenting on the progressive quality of gerunds. His imagery borders on the sublime, particularly his descriptions of a piano:

"The piano doesn’t sing. It sobs. It aches without release. Like a word that can’t wrench itself from the throat. Like an alkaline trapped in the liver. Even one note. A C-sharp. The death of a small bird. An F. A stranded car’s horn bleating for help on the highway. The piano has permanence. A factual permanence. You walk into a room and there it is in all of its stoic grandeur. It has omnipotence. It waits for you without pursuit. The hulking, coffin-like stillness. The way it comes to know your touch. Like a lover’s private indulgence. A kind of glacial intimacy. A cold, sexless knowing."

It’s passages like these that are capable of transporting audiences to a blissful linguistic hemisphere. On the other hand, Rapp – exhibiting the anxious indulgences of a young writer – gets consumed and hampered by his own luscious metaphors. Even Baker occasionally winks at some of the play’s more excessive moments. For example, Rapp likens the Narrator’s mother’s appearance in the hospital room as follows: "…my mother walks – or rather glides – into my room like some kind of cigar store Indian on casters." One gets the sense that the playwright fell in love with the image more than its meaning.

"Nocturne," therefore, tends to fit more accurately into the short-story arena than the live dramatic realm. But, thanks to Cohen’s softly exacting direction and Baker’s intense and genuine craftsmanship, the words take on the form of multiple characters engaged in an eviscerating psychological battle.

Martin Andrew’s X-ray-inspired scenic design reveals the innards of scraps of type-written text and subtly illustrates the brick-like books that serve as the Narrator’s prison and redemptive force. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lights cast an otherworldly glow and appear to emanate from the Narrator’s bleeding fibers. Sound designer Joshua Horvath punctuates Rapp’s words with delicate refrains; and even Michelle Mottram’s ultra-ordinary but layered costume for Baker serves to show the Narrator’s simultaneously building of a tough skin while shedding the weighty coating that bears down on his fragile bones.

Naked Eye Theatre Company’s production of "Nocturne" is extended through May 11 at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: $15. Call 312-742-TIXS or log onto www.nakedeyetheatre.org.

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