Blessed by Dallas Roberts’ technically and emotionally impeccable performance at its grieving heart, Adam Rapp’s “Nocturne” is remarkable enough to bear comparisons with Margaret Edson’s award-winning “Wit,” a work with which Rapp’s memory play has more than a little in common.
The first act has too much self-consciously “fine” writing in it; it would benefit from being tighter and less literary. And “Nocturne” is, as its title suggests, an unremittingly dark play, beginning with an accidental death and ending with a death by cancer. But both the play and Roberts’ intense performance will linger long in the memories of those who see it — just as the accident that effectively killed an entire family continues to lurk in the mind of the play’s protagonist.
As the son of a family in Joliet, Ill., Roberts hurtles headlong into “Nocturne,” which consists mostly of his monologue. Rapp’s no-nonsense opening line: “Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.” Roberts’ character, once a piano prodigy, is now 32. When he was 17 and his sister was nine, the brakes failed on his old car and it ran her down and beheaded her. After that opening line the character recalls all the many dictionary definitions of “kill” and thoroughly parses the word. Here and elsewhere in the first act, Rapp reveals his roots as a novelist.
But the playwright edits himself much more ruthlessly in act two, cutting much closer to the blood and bone of his central character. The family is utterly shattered by the accident. The mother leaves; the father lapses into clinical depression and is institutionalized (characters are denoted only by their family roles). At one point the father threatens to kill his son, shoving a gun into his mouth.
The son leaves home for New York, where he becomes a novelist; later he discovers he’s impotent. Fifteen years later he returns to Joliet at the request of his father, who, after a reconciliation scene written with beautiful simplicity, dies in his son’s arms.
All of the other characters in the play, with the exception of the father in the closing scene, are either mute or almost so. Each is as well cast as Roberts. Will LeBow is particularly fine as the father, at first uncomprehendingly murderous, then pathetic yet dignified when at death’s door. In her brief scene as the mother, Candice Brown is frozen anguish incarnate. Young Nicole Pasquale as the silent, dead daughter is a real pro throughout. And in an exquisite scene, Marin Ireland, as the protagonist’s girlfriend, manages to project sympathy while standing perfectly still, wordless and naked, as he speaks of his impotence.
Director Marcus Stern and set designer Christine Jones have worked closely together on a production of stark, formalized, minimal movement. The sets mutate subtly: a picture window through which the son and the mother view the dead girl later becomes a shadow box in which the body is displayed and finally the ghastly, claustrophobic room in which the father dies. There’s an applause-getting, trick-perspective set early in the second act that Roberts doesn’t let upstage him. A soundtrack of noises, including wind, piano music, pop songs, chattering children and thunder accompanies Roberts’ astounding monologue.
“Nocturne” doesn’t have as much assured theatrical impact as “Wit.” But it’s still quite a play and quite a performance. Here are a playwright and an actor to watch with keen interest.