The Sound Inside brings drama to a writing professor's office hours | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Sound Inside brings drama to a writing professor's office hours

click to enlarge The Sound Inside brings drama to a writing professor's office hours
Photo: Courtesy of barebones productions
barebones productions present The Sound Inside
Staged on a spare set in barebones productions' intimate Braddock-based theater, The Sound Inside focuses on an unconventional exchange between Bella Lee Baird (Elena Passarello), a middle-aged creative writing professor at Yale University who hasn’t published in 17 years, and Christopher Dunn (Max Pavel), a freshman student in her fiction seminar.

Directed by Patrick Jordan, the local premiere of Adam Rapp’s understated, gripping, Tony Award-winning play — with its meditation on reality, morality, and fiction — ably anchors barebones' 20th anniversary season.

Dunn appears aggrieved and discomfited when he arrives unannounced at Baird’s appointment-only office hours. In the two-person show, one-on-one discussions turn into dueling pretensions as Dunn and Barid attempt to impress each other with their respective wit and knowledge of writing craft. It’s not entirely clear what they want from each other, besides recognition.

The Sound Inside is a literary play, both in terms of content — it deals with writers, their favorite books, and their own manuscripts — and in the way it renders characters and plot. Baird narrates the story by directly addressing the audience, often indulging in the kinds of florid, descriptive sentences she discourages her students from using. She jots down particularly evocative phrases in her notebook, which are often revealed to the audience via projections on the black box theater's back wall.

Framing the play is Baird’s experience with cancer, including her own stage 2 diagnosis. She tells the audience how she witnessed and was deeply influenced by her mother’s grisly death from cancer, a circumstance undoubtedly drawn from Rapp’s own life (his mother, Mary Lee Baird, died of cancer in 1997).

The incisive script often subverts expectations, making for a fresh story. Passarello brings a wide-eyed uncertainty to her portrayal of the professor, even as Baird keenly perceives and describes her experiences and surroundings. Pavel portrays Dunn as charming, obstinate, and enigmatic, deeply enthralled, as is Baird, by the seductive dream of the perfect first draft of a first novel.

Jordan’s direction focuses attention on each character's yearning, providing plenty of space for the desire to unfurl. Sound design by Dave Eggar builds the simmering tension and Angela Vesco’s subtle costume design grounds the production in realism.
The Sound Inside. Continues through Sat, Aug. 26. Bingo O’Malley Stage. 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock. $40-50.