The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois
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The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois: Theater review by David Cote
Drama cannot happen without a controlled release of information that keeps the characters in the room and the audience wanting more. It helps to have vivid dialogue, an unpredictable plot and a meaty theme. In The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, Adam Rapp has only information. Although he withholds it with some skill, I wish there were more going on here than mere suspense.
Rapp’s plays generally come in three flavors: absurdist-gothic shockers like Faster, Essential Self-Defense and Stone Cold Dead Serious; apocalyptic pulp such as Through the Yellow Hour and Wolf in the River (recently at the Flea); and bruising, realistic character studies (American Sligo, Kindness and Red Light Winter). When he combines modes, as in The Hallway Trilogy, he approaches something dense and original. Purple Lights, well acted and creepy, feels like a writer noodling over his first draft, not diving deep into a subject.
What is the matter at hand? It’s an assortment of Rapp motifs: bad fathers, broken families, mental illness and spunky young women in danger. High-strung loner Ellis Shook (William Apps, in decidedly nonhipster beard) inhabits a depressingly bare duplex in Paducah, Kentucky. Tonight Ellis welcomes two teenagers into his grim home: mouthy and aggressive Monique (Susan Heyward) and silent, terrified-looking Catherine (Katherine Reis). Are they call girls? Over the next 90 minutes we get to know everyone’s backstory, with a psychotic episode and tasering thrown in to vary the tone. Since the main event is the revelation of Ellis’s condition and what horrible crime he once committed, I’ll stop the spoilers. In fact, what’s bound to surprise seasoned Rapp watchers may be the lack of outré plot convulsions.
Rapp directs his own script with careful detail, giving actors permission to nibble scenery. The petite and vibrant Heyward talks trash so amusingly, you wish Rapp gave her more to do than just plug plot holes. And Apps finds a neat groove between cryptomaniac and pathetic victim. Andromache Chalfant designed the perfectly banal set, which matches (for better or worse) the parched, blanched souls of Rapp’s people.—David Cote
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Adam Rapp. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.