Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Finding Hope in "The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois"

Playwright Adam Rapp

Playwright Adam Rapp is a writer’s writer. One of the most prolific playwrights in the American theater, he’s also a novelist, a screenwriter, a director and a musician.

To say that he’s busy these days is an understatement.

Rapp’s newest play, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, is an SCR commission premiering during the 17th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival—April 25-27—the same week he screens his latest film Loitering with Intent at the Tribeca Film Festival.

And although he’s new to South Coast Repertory, Rapp has long-since established his reputation in the American theatre as one of the most daring, talented playwrights working today.

Theatrically, Rapp is renowned for the visceral style, edge and poetry of his plays, which are at turns beautiful, provocative, oddly funny, and intensely humanistic. He’s perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama Red Light Winter, awarded for a production he directed at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York, where he lives.

His body of dramatic work is deep and includes the plays Nocturne, Stone Cold Dead Serious, Blackbird, Essential Self-Defense, Kindness, The Metal Children, The Hallway Trilogy, and Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling.

SCR’s Artistic Director Marc Masterson commissioned Adam shortly after arriving here from Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he premiered two of his plays—Finer Noble Gases (2002) and The Edge of Our Bodies (2011)—in the Humana Festival of New American Plays.

When asked what first drew him to Rapp’s work, Masterson says “I produced Finer Noble Gases because when I read it, it made me laugh and I thought it was interesting and challenging and theatrical.”

Their artistic collaboration resulted in a friendship, continued conversations and two commissions over the last twelve years.

“There’s often something dangerous in the circumstances of Adam’s plays” says Masterson, when asked what excites him most about his work. “There are often juveniles who are in potential danger, who find their own resilience and their own way of handling seemingly impossible situations. The worlds he investigates often contain people on the fringes of society, who are surviving in ways that point to the resiliency of the human spirit.”

“I find a lot of hope in his plays,” Masterson says, “and a kind of admiration for what people are capable of in difficult circumstances. Ultimately, they are affirming—and his new play is definitely full of hope.”

Rapp’s new play, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, is a powerful, cumulative drama about the transformative power of reconnection. It tells the story of Ellis Shook, a bipolar man who lives alone in a small duplex apartment in Paducah, Kentucky. Ellis works nights buffing floors, doesn’t have many friends—and always remembers to take his medication. But when two inquisitive teenage girls arrive at his doorstep, their visit forces him to confront a tragic past while offering him a glimpse of hope and a brighter future.

Asked about his inspiration for writing The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, Rapp said: “I wrote this play because I’m haunted by the notion of lost time—how years of our lives fall into black holes; holes in my own lives and others.”

Regarding the play’s protagonist, Ellis Shook, he says: “How does a man beset by early-adulthood madness reassemble his life after institutional regulation? What happens to the world 13 years after he’s left it, especially a world in which an analog culture has fallen away to digital dominance? How does one reassemble and reconnect the parts of one’s life after such a prolonged, misunderstood incarceration? Oddly enough, perhaps ironically, a major social media platform is what leads Ellis Shook to locate a 13-year-old girl of great importance to him. The modern world becomes the conduit to the scariest, but perhaps most important encounter he can imagine. I’m hoping the moments he shares with her in this play are far from digitally influenced, but rather ones that can be braved only with the muscles of the heart and the longing in the throat.”

Read more about Adam Rapp in this interview by playwright Marsha Norman, BOMB Magazine.

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