Nocturne begins and ends with death and speaks of little else in between. Don't let that put you off. The play by Adam Rapp, now running at Second Thought Theatre, announces its mordant theme in the first line uttered by the only character who speaks for nearly two hours. He is "The Son," played by Dallas actor Drew Wall. "Fifteen years ago I killed my sister," he says. He says it again and then rattles off some of the synonyms for "kill."
We don't find out right away how this young man ended the life of his sister, who was 9 when she died. He was 17 when the event happened but he is 32 in the play, looking back at how he got from that point to this. As a teenager he'd been a budding concert pianist. That ended with his little sister's death. He moved away from Illinois and his fractured family, got a tiny apartment in New York City, wrote a novel called Nocturne that sold 2,000 copies. Stayed distant from his mother and father for 15 years.
The monologue The Son delivers in torrents of Rapp's florid, poetic text seems to be a breaking point. He must say it all to us, right now, before the rest of his life can begin. By the time he's finished, we're pulling for him, wanting him to keep living and to find some kind of happiness. We've watched a man bare the depths of his soul. Watched an actor hold an audience rapt in as searing a performance as any to grace a Dallas stage in years.
First done 14 years ago at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, then off-Broadway in 2001, Nocturne is a tough piece. It is unrelentingly sad, though there are some light moments thanks to Drew Wall's ability to find them. And its complicated one-man narrative by a character whose life has been stifled by more than one family tragedy requires everything from an actor, including the power to lead the audience willingly into the slough of despond and out again. No prob for Wall, who is vividly, insistently present for every moment. We'd follow him anywhere.
Often cast in Buscemi-like roles as goofballs and sidekicks, Wall shows a new maturity in his acting. He uses every muscle in his body for the role of The Son, bouncing off walls, splaying himself on the floor. Vocally he toys with the pitch and rhythm of Rapp's odd, arresting word pictures and metaphors (there must be hundreds in the script), like notes of jazz. Rapp's percussive dialogue suits Wall's style in lines like "the crows have formed a kind of wavering anvil" and how his character's mother wore "makeup so severe it looked like it was applied at knifepoint."
Miranda Parham directs and designs the set in her first work with Second Thought, the small company that does three or four shows a year in the intimate Bryant Hall black box next to Kalita Humphreys Theater. She's kept the staging spare, moving the audience close to the action. She's also added the presence of young Tara Magill, flitting in and out like a ghostly butterfly as a reminder of the lost life. Tara's mother Shawn Magill wrote original music and did sound effects design, both just right.
Death looms large over this play. Drew Wall's superb acting turns Nocturne into a triumphant requiem.