Written and Directed by Adam Rapp
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“I like your sweater. That color’s good on you. Is that purple? (Ellis to his daughter) “So sometimes when I close my eyes there are cats and ocelots and burning trees. And sometimes the trees run like men on fire and sometimes there are ocelots up in the branches and they’re burning too.” (Ellis in “The Purple Lights of Joppa”)
Social media plays a significant role in “Adam Rapp’s “The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois” currently playing at Atlantic Stage 2. Ellis (William Apps) a father in Paducah Kentucky sends a Friend request to his estranged daughter Catherine (Katherine Reis) in Joppa Illinois and she accepts his invitation and they begin to chat. Seems simple enough – another example of reconnecting with family through Facebook. However, this connection is complicated. Ellis contacts his daughter through his nurse Barrett’s (Connor Barrett) Facebook account and father and daughter agree to meet at Ellis’s small street-level duplex apartment in Paducah at a specific time during Barrett’s next home visit to Ellis.
Adding to the fragility – and the excitement – of this bumpy ride, Catherine’s mother thinks Catherine is taking a walk around the block back in Joppa with her friend Monique (Susan Heyward); however, Monique – using the driver’s license of her thirty-seven-year-old aunt Takayda Flowers – makes the trip to Paducah with Catherine and is packing – of all things – her Uncle Levon’s Taser gun. This is but a portion of the exposition for Mr. Rapp’s play about a mentally ill father and a love-starved daughter that have no choice but to embrace change in the midst of chaos.
For five minutes during their visit, Ellis and Catherine stare at each other and experience profound confession, forgiveness, and the beginning of reconciliation as they listen to Mickey Newbury’s “I Don’t Think Much About Her No More.” This is a brave choice for Mr. Rapp and for the cast and a choice that pays off with abundant rewards. When Ellis decides to play track number three from Newbury’s 1969 album “Looks Like Rain,” Ellis determines to leave his world of “boiling doors” and lights that move and risk reuniting with the daughter he left years before.
Much goes on in “The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois; however, to share too much of the action would spoil the overall experience of seeing this remarkable play. It is perhaps enough to say that there is intrigue, surprise, shock, confusion, and a redemptive vision of unconditional and nonjudgmental love. The audience needs to engage in every delicate moment of how Mr. Rapp’s extraordinary characters embrace their engaging conflicts to spin a tale of healing and release.
William Apps captures the depths of Ellis’s despair and the intensity of his bi-polar affective disorder, with psychosis with impeccable precision. Mr. Apps does not waste one movement, one gesture, one glance in his portrayal of Ellis and his monologue describing Ellis’s experience with his disorder is life-changing and emotionally exhausting. Katherine Reis captures Catherine’s innate inquisitiveness and her need to know why her father left her. In their scenes together, Mr. Apps and Ms. Reis are not merely emotionally connected: they are somehow physically entwined in a ballet of belief in change.
Susan Heyward delivers a believable Monique who is at once Catherine’s soulmate and her protector and her alter ego. And Connor Barrett balances his caring professional persona with his utter fear that he might lose his position were his “secret” to be revealed. This is a brilliant ensemble cast that exercises its collective and individual craft without reserve or trepidation.
Adam Rapp’s direction is remarkable and brims with intensity and subtlety. When – at some almost indiscernible place – Catherine (and even Monique) decide to forgive Ellis, understand Ellis, and embrace his massive soul, Mr. Rapp choreographs forgiveness in ways that are as deeply emotional as they are purely startling. Think costume designer Jessica Pabst forgot to remove the size label from Ellis’s new pants? Just sit back and wait!
Watching Ellis and Catherine choose to travel the often unchartered paths of forgiveness and reconciliation is deeply cathartic. They both know they have done “bad stuff.” However, Catherine’s lists and Ellis’s journeys to the outer fringes of madness and back have somehow saved them, offered them salvation at least. And it is from that well of human grappling that Adam Rapp – once again – baptizes us with hope.