Actor Jesse R. Gephart is Mortall Coile Theatre Company (MCTC): he created this identity for the purpose of producing shows when possible in temporarily available local spaces. It’s a good name, for Gephart certainly knows something about soliloquy, and it is particularly fitting, too, for the Adam Rapp play Nocturne, which MCTC has produced as part of Burning Coal Theatre’s Wait ‘Til You See This! Series. Dana Marks directs; Gephart is the only actor in the affecting story that opens with the line, “Fifteen years ago I killed my sister.”
It was an accident, of course, but that in no way negates the fact. “There’s a finality in a fact. It has permanence,” says the character with a seraphic smile, as he begins to unfold his difficult story. He’s perched on a pile of books — a piece of furniture made of books — in a set built of books (wonderful design by Dana Marks and Jon Haas). Gephart’s character (we never hear his name) is wandering among the books as the audience enters, as if he’s always been lost in this labyrinth of words. Huddled in his spiny fortress, he has called upon the saints of literature for their wisdom, and at times, calls out their names like an invocatory prayer. (Rapp seems to have had a difficult time recalling great female authors other than Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton, the one glaring shortcoming in the script.) There’s a delicious contrast between the struggling novelist’s erudition and his shabby appearance and the jerry-rigged instability of his surroundings.
Dana Marks, herself a very fine actor, has been honing her directorial skills to a keen edge. Her direction last year of the two-actor play In On It was flawless, and here she has beautifully guided the single player through a maze of language and emotion that runs about 90 minutes, uninterrupted. Rapp’s language is poetic, lyrical, slightly grandiloquent, and jam-packed with similes. Rich in description, it brings scenes and sounds sharply to the viewer, relying heavily on musical references. Its greatness lies in its ability to evoke bodies and bodily sensations — even for the characters we know only through the young man’s storytelling. Marks has Gephart speak all this lush language without swagger, instead relying on restraint and reserve and a long-billed cap that shades his shy face. It is another delicious contrast, and this delicacy makes it possible for us to remain riveted for the entire lengthy monologue.
If it weren’t done so well, it would be tough to sit through this harrowing story of accident and tragedy. It would be unbearable to learn of the child’s flowered dress, her yellow socks with lace, to hear “sirens shrieking, weeping, in an octave known only to whales and dolphins,” to learn that in his memory of her nine-year-old face “the only thing that endures is an overwhelming blankness.” A brake line fails; a child dies; a family splinters. It is rough stuff, however well wrapped in silken sentences. A child dies, grief blooms, and its flower lasts long. Sorrow piles upon sorrow, yet finally one reaches a kind of reconciliation, a renewal, for “even the greatest sleeping sea can be awakened by the tides.”
Nocturne runs through March 24 in Burning Coal’s Murphy School Auditorium and is guaranteed to put any basketball loss into perspective. Please view the sidebar for more details on this production.