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A CurtainUp Review
The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois
By Charles Wright
Think of Red Light Winter, Rapp's best known work, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2006. In that play, two buddies vacationing in Amsterdam have sex with the same prostitute. One guy falls in love with her, she falls in love with the other. A year later, she turns up unannounced in New York, where the two men live, with surprising, discommodious results.
The protagonist of Rapp's new play, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, is Ellis Shook (William Apps), a middle-aged Kentuckian not long out of prison, where he served a sentence for a bizarre crime committed during a psychotic spell. Purple Lights. . . depicts Ellis's reunion with Catherine (Katherine Reis), the 13-year-old daughter he abandoned in her infancy when he fled Joppa, Illinois.
Ellis is bi-polar and often at a loss for words; Catherine is wary and reticent. Their meeting would be awkward under any circumstances. But Rapp ups the ante on discomfiture with two additional characters: Catherine's "sociopathic hardcore gangsta" friend Monique (Susan Heyward) and Ellis's nurse/social-worker, Barrett (Connor Barrett), who has a genius for poor judgment.
These four personalities are a volatile combination, especially when cooped up in Ellis's apartment. That apartment, like the playing area in the Atlantic Theater Company's secondary venue on West 16th Street, is extremely small.
Scenic designer Andromache Chalfont's set offers few areas of escape; but the playwright, who's also the director, expertly gets characters on and off stage in order to keep both action and exposition moving. Each time a player exits to the bathroom (Catherine has irritable bowel syndrome), the bedroom (Monique is dispatched there to give father and daughter a chance to speak privately), or the kitchenette (where each of the four retreats at some point when close to a primal scream), the psychological balance of the dialogue is altered and the audience learns things that wouldn't be revealed otherwise.
The four actors are adept at playing the kind of troubled souls that are Rapp's stock-in-trade. The two men have worked with the playwright often enough to be termed "Rapp actors" (in the way that W.H. Macy is known as a "Mamet actor"). Apps was in Wolf in the River at The Flea earlier this year. Barrett (whose character is also "Barrett") appeared in Rapp's Finer Noble Gases in New York, London, Edinburgh, and Washington, D.C.
In the early scenes of Purple Lights, the playwright fakes off his audience, concealing the purpose of the girls' visit. For several pages of the script, it seems probable they're teen prostitutes summoned by Ellis via phone or internet. And Monique's aggressive manner suggests that the poor felon will get the worst of the bargain before the play's end.
Withholding the information that Ellis is Catherine's father isn't worth the playwright's trouble. The mystery is more vexing than suspenseful. It's a coy dramatic mannerism that serves to delay the audience's emotional engagement with the characters.
Much about Purple Lights conforms to what one expects in a play by Rapp. There are misfits, ruffians, and malcontents hanging around in seedy surroundings; menacing personal dynamics; and dialogue that veers from crass, combative and barely articulate to a wacky, off-beat kind of lyricism. There's also something here that's sweet and noble and, finally, redemptive. And that's a welcome surprise.