“Fifteen years ago, I killed my sister,” begins the character known only as Son (Kevin Meehan), introducing himself and director Meghann Williams’ powerful production of Adam Rapp’s grief-stricken monologue/drama Nocturne at Flashpoint Theatre Company. As opening statements go, this is one that gets our attention, which is good—because for the next 85 minutes, Son is the only one we see, though we hear quite a bit about the four others involved in his tale of woe: mother, father, girlfriend and dead little sister.
“I can’t remember my sister’s face,” Son explains, though he remembers everything else about her and that fateful day: Steely Dan’s “Hey 19” on the radio of his prized ’69 Buick Electra, a dog barking, a football kicked into the street, a tiny, horrible thud when the car’s brakes fail. After the Buick strikes a tree, Son stumbles back to the point of impact; through the haze of pain of his cracked ribs and broken nose, he sees his 9-year-old sister’s decapitated body. “Her head is across the street,” he tells us. “It has rolled into the Petersons’ driveway.”
That specific detail may come across in print as black humor, but it isn’t. This holds for much of the play; when Son later describes himself as “an impotent virgin who works in a bookstore,” there is no humor in his voice. There never is.
The tragic accident destroys the family. The mother is institutionalized, and after the father sticks a gun in his son’s mouth, the boy leaves home for New York City. He finds employment and temporary refuge from his memories at a bookstore; literature and words function as something of a sanctuary for him. He even writes a novel about a young man who accidentally kills his sister in a car accident and then moves to New York—in it, the young man doesn’t stop after the accident, he just keeps on driving.
Some critics have argued that Nocturne itself is too literary. Rapp’s vivid imagery—the mother’s “shellacked hair” and nylon running suit “crackling like fire” and the father’s state of mind described as a “dwindling vapor of sanity”—and the voice of a lone narrator makes Nocturne seem like a short story masquerading as a play.
Some productions try to make the play more theatrical by letting the audience physically see some or all of the story’s five main characters who are described in such eloquent detail. Lacking the usual stage directions, Nocturne lends itself to all sorts of such interpretations. The 2001 New York Theatre Workshop production used five actors. In 2003, the now-defunct Theater Catalyst used a cast of three on this very same stage.
Williams takes a different approach. Instead of worrying about theatricality, her production focuses on words and how Son uses them as a salve for his pain. The decision to use a single actor rules out some strong staging possibilities—the appearance of the sister at the 2003 Adrienne staging was truly haunting, for example—but it succeeds in communicating Son’s profound loneliness. Meehan’s all by himself up there, and the production really hangs on him.
“Grief doesn’t expire, it changes temperature,” says Son, and Meehan’s intense performance showcases these distinct degrees of pain. Even surrounded by his comforting books, Meehan’s Son is a cauldron of emotions that are bubbling over into physicality. There’s nothing easy or casual in his movements, no relaxed muscle in his body. He sits, stands and moves with his starched form erect and tense; even the hand in his pocket is a balled fist.
Son even carries around a copy of his now-published autobiographical novel like a physical incarnation of his past—it seems sometimes as if the book should be searingly hot, or have a cover made of knives. At times, he reads from it the details of his life as if they happened to someone else. The volume and pitch of Meehan’s voice rises and falls, but though he is intense, his Son remains in control. In a performance devoid of theatrics, Meehan holds us in his grip.
Under new artistic director Thom Weaver, Flashpoint is showing signs of resurgence. This accomplished production of Nocturne comes on the heels of Flashpoint’s stunning season opener Run, Mourner, Run. Both plays are wrenching, lyrical works that show how theater can be at once both eloquent and raw. In Rapp’s painfully reflective and finally perhaps optimistic play, we learn that moments of beauty can exist even in a world of perpetual night.
Through Feb. 26. $5-$20. The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215.665.9720. flashpointtheatre.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9