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Aidan Correia (right) and Moya O'Connell star in The Sound Inside, a Coal Mine Theatre production.Tim Leyes/The Coal Mine Theatre/Tim Leyes/The Coal Mine Theatre

  • Title: The Sound Inside
  • Written by: Adam Rapp
  • Director: Leora Morris
  • Actors: Moya O’Connell, Aidan Correia
  • Company: Coal Mine Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 28, 2023

The Sound Inside, a drama with which the long-practicing, lower-tier American playwright Adam Rapp made his Broadway debut in 2019, is an unlikeable piece of stage writing in many ways. Its Canadian premiere currently on stage at the Coal Mine in Toronto is nevertheless very compelling.

The play concerns a relationship between a creatively stuck and cancer-stricken professor and a talented but troubled student.

You’ve likely seen or read stories with a similar set-up many times before – and, indeed, at first, Rapp’s picture of Ivy League ennui does feel dated and done, cut off from the current world and times in which it is ostensibly set.

Bella, the creative-writing professor played by the Shaw Festival/Bard on the Beach regular Moya O’Connell, narrates as if she were writing a short story (and sometimes scribbles down what she says in a notebook too).

Her authorial voice has a dusty-dry sense of humour, which she uses to dissect aspects of her life with almost clinical detachment. She, for instance, assesses herself in the “Looks Department” as “four or five degrees beyond mediocre, also known as ‘sneakily attractive’” and describes her mother’s death from cancer and her own diagnosis in excruciating detail. (As a writer, then, Bella shares a macho grimness with the male playwright who created her.)

Christopher, a freshman and would-be writer played by an intense Vancouver actor named Aidan Correia making a notable Toronto debut, is first noticed by Bella when he exclaims one day in her class that he will write a character worthy of Dostoevsky. She’s subsequently amazed that he spends breaks going over his work rather than pulling out his phone and updating his Facebook status.

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Correia portrays a student/wannabe writer named Christopher and O'Connell plays Bella, a creative writing professor.Tim Leyes/The Coal Mine Theatre/Tim Leyes/The Coal Mine Theatre

Later, Bella learns, too, that Christopher has excellent penmanship and is working on a novel on an old manual typewriter – a fact that is treated here not as an affectation, but with affection.

While Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram are other social media platforms mentioned in Rapp’s script, Bella and Christopher’s discussions of literature on increasingly frequent office-hours visits seem teleported from 20 years ago; Jonathan Franzen is pointlessly bashed, David Foster Wallace overly extolled, James Baldwin merely mentioned in passing.

A rising sexual tension between the professor and student is, similarly, depicted in a way that feels like it comes from a different era of discourse – and I wondered why Rapp didn’t just set his play in the Wonder Boys era rather than in a contemporary-ish moment both he and his characters clearly have disdain for.

I could go on about The Sound Inside’s contrivances, its impossibly isolated characters, or the manipulative and moot (in Canada, anyway) places that the plot goes.

But the fact is that Rapp’s play – despite all the things that bugged me about it – eventually started to simply pull me into its atmosphere of dread and mystery.

O’Connell, though in some ways a surprising casting choice for Bella, is captivating in her incautious curiosity about Christopher. Correia, meanwhile, is entirely fresh in his depiction of this young man’s mercuriality, sometimes menacing, sometimes mellow.

The two actors have an unusual, enveloping chemistry – and though you may not believe that the pieces of writing their characters share with each other are as original and exciting as they do, you believe that they believe it.

Director Leora Morris’s production, meanwhile, is simple in a sumptuous way that held me rapt. She has the actors move a desk, its drawers and a couple of chairs around in strange ways to create myriad locations that morph from one to the next – and ultimately engineers a couple of magical moments where the production seems to slip into a whole other dimension of reality.

Wes Babcock’s lighting is crucial to the creation of that atmosphere – and a pivotal assist comes from sound designer Chris Ross-Ewart in the play’s most hypnotic, disturbing and beautiful scenes.

I can’t deny The Sound Inside left me unsettled and moved – and feeling like the work of Rapp, despite its obvious shortcomings, can possess a peculiar power when mounted this magnificently.

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