Long before we learn that Ellis (William Apps) has an estranged daughter, a terrible secret, and a real thing about lamps, we know something is off. We see him nervously fussing about his apartment, a sizing sticker still attached to his pants, a hastily forgotten stick of deodorant wedged in the couch cushions. Ellis is sent barreling towards a series of dramatic confessions when his daughter Catherine (Katherine Reis) and her friend Monique (Susan Heyward) arrive on his doorstep, but Ellis’ quiet panic at the outset sets the tone for much of what is to come.
Between hefty revelations about Ellis’ past, Adam Rapp’s The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois exists in a state of dramatic stasis, a strained and sustained note that carries through until the conclusion. It’s a 90-minute, awkward conversation with a couple high notes. The lack of action would be a bigger problem were it not such a pleasure to watch Mr. Apps and Ms. Reis. The two of them approach varying levels of mental distress with ease, and watching them gradually grow comfortable around one another is genuinely heartwarming. Hearing Ellis describe how he’s sometimes able to dispel his nightmares by envisioning Catherine flying a kite nearly brought me to tears.
The play’s deepest problems stem from Monique. She’s a self-proclaimed linguist, feminist, and sociopathic hardcore gangsta, and her outsized quirks are glaringly out of place in these otherwise convincing environs. Monique would be an easier character to reconcile if she didn’t dominate the first third of the play with her abuse. An early scene is taken up by Ellis playing the entirety of Mickey Newbury’s “I Don’t Think Much About Her No More” in silence while Monique broadcasts her disdain. Nearly six minutes of pantomimed derision may have worked in the hands of a better actress but it’s unlikely. Fortunately, Monique’s miscalculated presence takes over the first third and not the last. By the play’s conclusion she has been banished to an off-stage bedroom and her failed attempts at cruelty and levity fade in favor of Ellis and Catherine’s touching reunion.
The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois runs through June 26th at Atlantic Stage 2. 330 W. 16th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.