Second Thought Theatre’s Nocturne Offers Poetic Discomfort

A difficult production excels in its moodiness.

Those who saw Drew Wall in Red Light Winter at Second Thought Theatre in 2011 already know that he is an adept interpreter of the playwright Adam Rapp. In Nocturne, Rapp’s harshly poetic one-man play, Wall once again thrusts himself wholly into the darkness and leaves the audience breathless.

It all begins with a shocking confession: “Fifteen years ago, I killed my sister.” As Wall recounts how a faulty brake line severed both his little sister’s life and his own, he bores his red-rimmed eyes into yours, insisting you share in his torturous sorrow and guilt. Director Miranda Parham’s set has literally backed him into a corner, anchored by a hulking piano that’s a painful tether to his wasted child prodigy past.

The angelic Tara Magill, silently haunting our narrator with her ghostly presence, often blocks his only path of escape. The way the audience is positioned means that we often hear, but don’t always see, Magill as she skips and scampers behind the risers. It’s a genius move. It doesn’t matter if we see the sister—what matters is that Wall can’t stop seeing her.

Wall’s raw portrayal of grief extends to his family, a mother and father who recoil from their son in excruciating ways. Rather than base impressions, these characters are rendered in subtle inflection and shaded interpretation, fleeting reactions mined from the son’s memory. A final scene between father and son is a masterful display of acting.

Just as integral to establishing the hazy atmosphere are Aaron Johansen’s lighting and Shawn Magill’s sound design. As the son dips into happy reminiscing, only to be ripped back into the agony of the present, Johansen’s lights provide a crisp and cutting slap in the face. Magill’s haunting, vaguely ominous piano score creeps into the cracks of Rapp’s dialogue, heightening the sense of loss.

The intermission-free show is a difficult one to endure, and that’s the highest of compliments to Wall, Parham, and crew. If it weren’t so uncomfortable, they wouldn’t be doing it right.