As a writer, Adam Rapp has always had a foot in several different worlds. Some of them are recognizable to us, while others serve as a warning of what could happen when humans are faced with imminent destruction. His latest, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, is of the former camp. It also happens to be his most substantial play in several years.
As the lights rise, Ellis Shook (William Apps) is picking lint off his carpet. Ellis is the definition of the word loner. He has a long, bushy beard and ponytail; his clothes still have their department store stickers on them. He's strangely obsessed with a standing lamp in the corner of his living room. Ellis' apartment itself, designed with precisely banal efficiency by Andromache Chalfant, seems unsuitable for a life besides his.
Ellis is preparing for the arrival of two visiting strangers: Monique (Susan Heyward) and Catherine (Katherine Reis). Both are teenagers, significantly younger than the fortysomething Ellis. Monique has an advanced vocabulary that betrays her street-tough demeanor. Catherine, afflicted with all sorts of conditions including IBS and asthma, is more demure and nervous. All are dubious about one another's motives.
The plot of The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois gradually emerges through a series of skillfully distributed revelations over the course of the play's 85 real-time minutes. Perceptive audience members will see certain things coming, like the relationship between this very awkward middle-aged man and his 13-year-old visitor. Others, like the disclosure of Ellis' unfortunate backstory involving bipolarity and psychosis, are more eye-opening.
Even though all of this information is imparted through questions the characters ask and the answers they deliver, it rarely feels static. There's only one point where it genuinely gets snoozy: when Ellis, Monique, and Catherine spend six minutes silently listening to Mickey Newbery's folk ballad "I Don't Think Much About Her No More," an obvious metaphor for Ellis' life. Rapp's script is genuinely sensitive to the lives and shortcomings of its subjects, and he provides a deliberately unfussy and focused staging that fits the material.
All of the actors, including the welcoming Connor Barrett as Ellis' openhearted caretaker, deliver beautifully well-worn performances. As Monique, Catherine's best friend and eagle-eyed watchdog, Heyward is alternately hysterical and terrifying, especially when she unexpectedly pulls out a Taser gun. In Jessica Pabst's noticeably modern costumes, Reis looks every bit like the pre-pubescent young woman Catherine is supposed to be, and she carries herself with a carefully calibrated air of teenage gawkiness. Best of all is Apps, who is so uncomfortably realistic that we eventually forget he's an actor playing a part.
As a slice-of-life drama, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois succeeds on all fronts. It's a welcome return to form in the case of its author, whose earthbound writing has always had the essential power to shock and move without any unnecessary embellishments.