Theatre Review: Stageworthy’s “Nocturne” by Adam Rapp

A few Saturday nights ago I drove over to the United Methodist Church at 29th and Fall Creek to see Stageworthy’s production of “Nocturne,” written by Adam Rapp and directed by John Kastner.

It was a treat.

In that same weekend I also saw Carmel Community Players’ production of “Steel Magnolias” and the Broadway Across America touring production of “Sister Act.”  I enjoyed those two very much but Stageworthy’s production of “Nocturne” is the experience I want to write about because it exemplifies so much of why I never automatically rule out all-volunteer shows even when I’m looking for art more than community.

Playwright/Novelist Adam Rapp

If you’re a regular reader of Indy Theatre Habit, you know that I earn my living as a librarian working mostly with teenagers (aka “young adults.”)  I know Adam Rapp as a young adult novelist more than as a playwright. 

The four YA novels I’ve read by him are Missing the Piano (a bleak story about an unloved boy sent to a harsh military school), The Buffalo Tree (about two abused boys in a bleak juvenile detention center), The Copper Elephant (about an abused child in a bleak post-apocalyptic world), and 33 Snowfish (a bleak story about three abused children on the run with a baby they kidnapped and hope to sell.) 

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) named Adam Rapp’s Punkzilla novel a Printz honor book in 2010 for its literary quality.  I haven’t read that one yet but I’ve heard it is bleak.

In fact, it is hard for me to suggest Adam Rapp’s novels to most teens that ask me for “a good book” simply because his books are so darn bleak.  And harsh.  And shocking.  And chilling.  And almost unrelenting in their depressing world view.

But words like “lyrical” and “hypnotic” and “breathtaking” apply to his writing, too.

And his novels are, in spite of everything else they depict, hopeful.  I insisted that 33 Snowfish be on the required reading list for a young adult literature seminar that I co-taught several years ago for people that were working on their Master of Library Science degrees.  It was a good book to trigger a discussion of why books that make adults uncomfortable are sometimes worth defending for teens.  It is also a good trigger for discussing why adults (maybe especially American adults) think that every book a teenager reads has to be hopeful.  I confess that I look for hope myself – truthful hope – in stories, not only for teens but for all of us.

After I started writing this theatre blog, I read some interviews, reviews, and other things about Adam Rapp’s work as a playwright.  He has had several plays produced in New York City and is apparently quite well known there.  Wikipedia says that one of his plays was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2006.  However, I knew I wouldn’t get many chances to see his plays produced here in Indiana.

In spite of all this, I almost didn’t go see the Indianapolis premiere of “Nocturne” because I didn’t know if I had the energy that night to sit through two hours of bleakness to get to a glimmer of hope, especially if the production was mediocre.

I didn’t know anything about “Nocturne” and it had been so long since I had been to a Stageworthy production that I couldn’t remember how I’d felt about it.

This Play

I can tell you now that “Nocturne” is about a teenaged piano prodigy in the Midwest that accidentally kills his little sister when the brakes go out on his car.  His parents can’t forgive him or help him forgive himself – his father even comes close to shooting him – so he flees to New York City. 

There, he “reads his head off” for a couple of years while working in a book store.  He even builds furniture for his studio apartment out of books.  Eventually, he begins to write, too, on an old typewriter.  A girl he meets at a reading helps him get his novel published even though he is impotent in terms of making love with her.  Meanwhile, his mother moves into an institution for the clinically depressed and his father’s physical health deteriorates. 

Years later, when his father is near death, he calls his son back to him.  Though still uncomfortable with each other, they reconcile in a way.  It is far from sweetness and light – very far – but after the father dies, the young man moves back to New York City – and his typewriter and his girlfriend – with fresh energy.

See?  It’s basically a hopeful story, even though there’s a lot of horrible stuff along the way.  The quiet reconciliation, the redemption, is so good!  So cathartic for the audience!

And the show is basically a monologue, which makes it even more interesting artistically. The Son tells his story like the gifted and now-polished writer he is, almost as if he is reading aloud his own work – with lots of metaphors and other literary devices – but from memory, and at the same time as a conversation with the audience.  There is no Fourth Wall in this piece. 

On the other hand, there are four other actors that appear on stage when their characters appear in the narration.  They say their characters’ words and create little scenes within the monologue, rather than The Son telling the whole story himself.

Beyond the satisfying story and the somewhat unusual presentation of it, the language in this play, like the language in Adam Rapp’s novels, is a pleasure.  It is a pleasure to hear in the moment and it makes you want to get a copy of the script to read it for yourself.  (I borrowed a copy from my local public library.)   The two hours at the theatre flew by.

This Production – the set, costumes, lighting, sound, etc.

I don’t know how this play is produced by professional theatres with relatively large production budgets.  In Stageworthy’s all-volunteer, low-budget production, the descriptive language in the script and the skill of the director and actors did the bulk of the work rather than elaborate sets, props, costumes, etc.  However, the few theatrical devices that were used were well chosen.  The minimalism highlighted the strengths of this particular theatre ensemble, which made it a treat within a treat, if that makes sense.

For example:  The Son sat on a stool and mimed driving the car, singing along to Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” a recording of which was actually playing in the background.  The Father pointed an actual gun but a wooden desk was the only furniture we actually saw in his den.  In The Son’s New York apartment, there were actual stacks of books tied with string and an actual old-fashioned typewriter, but we imagined the bathtub in the middle of the kitchen.  In The Father’s end-of-life apartment, we saw the actual worn La-Z-Boy recliner that had become his sick “bed” but we imagined the large black piano that had belonged to his father (The Son’s grandfather) and that he had somehow kept with him all those years. 

As The Son told his story, he moved back and forth between two blond bar stools set on either side of a low set of steps on a kind of apron downstage, where the lighting was brighter.  Scenes with the other actors took place on the upstage area where the walls, floor, and ceiling were all painted black  or draped in black or were otherwise dark.  The lighting there was precise enough to divide the area for different scenes and set various moods, and always bright enough that we could see clearly what was going on, but there was a definite “blond/black” contrast in the staging overall, which subtly echoed other “blond/black” themes in the story.

The Mother made a whole hospital room out of one plain little chair and a running suit that “crackled like fire” exactly as described by The Son.  The Daughter didn’t get any actual furniture at all in her scene, but the dress the actor wore was exactly like the Son described: a “small white dress with blue flowers.  Anemones.  Buttercups…The quality of the white Roman somehow; the flowers so blue it’s as if they are singing.”

I loved the sound design, too, and asked the director about it after the show.  He said that the script only calls for a specific piece of piano music at the end: Grieg’s “Nocturne.”  Other places the script only says something like “the sound of piano music can be heard in the distance.”  I loved the other bits of piano music the director chose, and I loved that he played Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” for intermission music. 

The blocking was just the right mix of movement that made sense and that kept the audience engaged without being movement for movement’s sake.  Also, there was attention to things like clearing away the bar stool so that it didn’t block our view of the La-Z-Boy recliner in the reconciliation scene. 

(“Please move that stool!” I breathed during that scene change.  “I’m sitting in what you said was your best seat.  Please don’t make me watch this pivotal scene through the rungs of that stool.  Please move it out of the way.  Please, please, please!”

And they did!  Yay!)

Director John Kastner designed and decorated the set.  Matthew Wardwell was the stage manager. John and Matthew assembled and/or made the props.  Set crew included John and Matthew plus Deborah Colter. 

Angela Kastner and John Kastner produced the show.  Lighting and sound design was by Susan Gaertner and John Kastner.  Susan was the lighting technician.  John was the sound technician.  The cast members found or made their own costumes.

This Production – the acting

Robert Webster, Jr. was beyond excellent in the role of The Son.

Rob told me later that he auditioned because he wanted the challenge of what is basically a solo show.  I think “Nocturne” is even more challenging than a solo show, however, because there are occasional scenes with other actors.  I’ve done solo storytelling shows myself so I know that if you’re the only one talking, you can let the story carry you along to some extent and if you forget something, you can weave it back in yourself.  Yes, it’s all up to you, but on the other hand, you’re the only one you have to worry about, other than the audience, of course.  But if other actors are waiting to hear their cues, you really have to make sure you stick to the script as written.

In any case, Robert nailed it!  He delivered all of the beautiful verbiage crisply and clearly but also made it sound natural.  It was so moving!  So convincing!  I believed that he was the off-the-charts-gifted-but-damaged guy telling the story in his writerly way and that all of it had actually happened to him. 

I also believed that he thought of us as real, too.  I mean that he had an easy rapport with us, his audience.  He made eye contact with us often and in a natural way.

The other four actors were good, too.  They perfectly enriched the telling.

Dan Flahive gave The Father an expertly nuanced mix of strength and weakness, rage and fear.  Susan Rardin gave The Mother an expertly nuanced blend of cold depression and helpless good intentions.  Sari Lott beautifully portrayed The Red-Haired Girl with the Grey-Green Eyes as the angel that The Son believed her to be. 


And Samantha Whitlock, in what the director told me later was her stage debut, was charming and whimsical and adorable and rascally as The Sister, which made her death all the more poignant of a loss.

All five actors, under John Kastner’s direction, brought out the humor in the story as well as the horror and the sadness and the growth.

Stageworthy/Encore Association

The last time I attended a Stageworthy show was in 2009, when they were in a church in the Broad Ripple area of Indy and I was an Encore judge.  Stageworthy is one of the eleven members of the Encore Association of all-volunteer community theatres in the Indianapolis area.

John told me they have been in their current location in the Broadway United Methodist Church at 609 E. 29th Street for three years and are very happy with the partnership.

He also said that his/their mission is to do shows that haven’t been done in the Indianapolis area for at least the past ten (correction: five) years.  This doesn’t necessarily mean premieres, but “Nocturne” was an Indianapolis premiere.

He also said that because they are an Encore member they are not supposed to do any pre-casting.  He said he lucked out when Rob walked into auditions.  Lucky, indeed!

Stageworthy does two shows a year, I think.  I saw “Nocturne” during its final weekend.  Auditions for their next show, “Based on a Totally True Story” by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, are coming up next week – March 25 and 26, 2013.  The show itself will run for two weekends:  June 7-16, 2013.  It will also be an Indianapolis premiere.  More information about both the auditions and the show are now up on Stageworthy’s homepage:

I agree with John that the new location is a great space.  It has a proper stage, for one thing, rather than just a platform.  Also, there is free parking in a well-lit lot right next to the church.  I also love that for $2 extra you can sit on a cushy sofa in the front row instead of in a folding chair.  (All tickets are cash only.  Regular tickets for “Nocturne” were just $10.)

However, if you are in a wheelchair, be sure to let them know when you make your reservations (317-750-6454) so that they have access to the elevator key and a non-staired entrance.  Otherwise, you have to go up and down several sets of stairs to get to where the theatre is in the basement of the church.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

Note: Photos for this post were taken by John Kastner and provided to me with permission to use them on my blog.  Roll your mouse over each one to see the actors’ names.
©2013 Hope Baugh

4 thoughts on “Theatre Review: Stageworthy’s “Nocturne” by Adam Rapp”

  1. Wow, Hope!
    Thank you for the kind words! I am glad that you enjoyed the show. It was a labor of love for me and was a show that, as I told you afterward, I felt I HAD to present from the first time I read it (and reread it and reread it). 🙂

    I wish more folks had taken a chance on “Nocturne”, but many of those that did are still sharing positive remarks about their experience. My cast and crew were so completely committed to the final product and I am very proud of them and their contributions.
    One quick clarification on StageWorthy’s mission: we have a “five year rule” for presenting shows, not ten years as noted.
    I hope you don’t wait another four years to check us out.
    Thanks again and take care.

  2. Hope, we saw your name on the sign-in book, and I have been watching for a review. A GREAT show! [And a great blog …]

  3. Thanks very much, Louise, both for reading and for leaving the complimentary comment! I wish I had time to blog about every show I see. ‘Hope you and Joe are both well. ‘See you at the theatres!

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