The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois Theatre Review – These “Lights” Shine the Brightest at SCR

Monique (Christina Elmore) confronts Ellis (William Apps)

(Costa Mesa, CA) April, 2014 – For over 15 years, South Coast Repertory has hosted the Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF), a three-day showcase where seven new works are either performed in staged readings or in full productions. This year’s PPF featured four staged readings: Zealot by Theresa Rebeck, Future Thinking by Eliza Clark, Of Good Stock by Melissa Ross and Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph; Wolf was previously read last October during SCR’s NewSCRipts series. The actors participating in this season's script readings included theatre, television and film veterans John de Lancie (the Star Trek franchise), Penny Johnson Jerald (24, Castle), Arye Gross (Castle), Linda Gehringer (Justified), Evan Handler (Californication), and David Denman (The Office, Angel), to name a few.


For the full production line up, Samuel Hunter’s Rest and Rachel Bonds’ Five Mile Lake will be continuing their run. However, a third full production was added not only specifically for the PPF, but also in honor of SCR’s Golden Anniversary season. Adam Rapp’s The Purple Light’s of Joppa Illinois was part of SCR’s NewSCRipts series last December and the feedback was so positive that his play was approved to be performed at the Nicholas Studio during the PPF. The reading was an incredible moment in the series, for both the actors and for Rapp as a seasoned playwright. To see Purple Lights as a full production is nothing short of phenomenal. Rapp’s dramatic voice, as well as a superb cast, makes this production the best world premiere in SCR’s Golden Anniversary season.


Playwrights featured at the Pacific Playwrights Festival readings (clockwise from upper left): Eliza Clark, Melissa Ross, Theresa Rebeck, Rajiv Joseph

Working as a floor buffer during the evenings and living in a duplex in Paducah, Kentucky, Ellis (William Epps) tries to keep a level of sanity about him. But today he is even more on edge than usual; even his medications only remotely help. He is expecting two guests: a frail, demure teenager Catherine (Virginia Veale) and her street-wise, profanity-spewing friend Monique (Christina Elmore). When they do arrive, on the surface, it looks like a dangerously inappropriate sexual rendezvous. But it is later revealed that Catharine is Ellis’s daughter from a failed marriage. After suffering a breakdown that has resulted in imprisonment and then confinement in a mental facility—for which he was later released with an ankle tracker, Ellis is trying to heal from his wounds by connecting with his daughter. But the question remains: what happened to Ellis? It isn’t until Ellis’s nurse Barrett (Conner Barrett) reveals the hell that his patient goes through on a daily basis. And with that revelation, Catharine decides if she should reconnect with her father. 


Playwright Adam Rapp: The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois

The black box, 99-seat intimacy of the Nicholas Studio is perfect for this poignant tale; producing it even in the Argyros Stage—which is typically used for world premiere’s of new playwrights—would have robbed some of the power that Rapp’s work possesses. Ellis’s dingy and the unclean apartment can be felt and smelled, courtesy of Sara Ryung Clement’s scenic design. Crispin Whittell’s disciplined direction keeps the play at a 90 minute run time (with no intermission) where the actors don’t need to move during half of their dialogue; their presence alone and Rapp’s creative ear is enough to maintain the audience’s rapt attention to the very end of the play.


All of the actors shine with their dimensionality and charisma. Apps’s gives a powerhouse of a portrayal with Ellis, showing mercurial layers of his bi-polar affective disorder and psychosis and during times when he is lucid. He starts off nervous at first, showing occasional tics that are hints to his disease. Then when he does have a breakdown, he feeds off the confusion and anger from his fellow cast members, but then calms to where he does become a likable father to Catherine, resulting in a tender, tragic performance. Veale’s Catherine is an adorable wallflower who shows similar behavioral ticks as her father. But Veale adds a playful nature to Catherine when she shares her dreams with her father and shows no-nonsense courage when returning the biting barbs from Monique. And in the final scene between her and Apps, her compassion forges a bond between father and daughter. Elmore’s sarcastic Monique provides much of the comic relief, especially when she shows off her knowledge of linguistics, very reminiscent of what Samuel L. Jackson did in his Oscar nominated performance in Pulp Fiction. And Barrett’s…ahem…Barrett serves as a perfect model of sympathy and loyalty, becoming more of a friend to Ellis instead of a nurse.


But the true star is playwright Adam Rapp, who has demonstrated incredible artistry in realistic dialogue and three dimensional characters, as well as a crafting a potent kindhearted story about family, healing and redemption, something that is well needed in this cynical world. Unfortunately, the play has a limited run. But hopefully, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois will catch the eyes of many prestigious theatre reps here at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, resulting in more appearances throughout the American theatrical landscape.    


Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.


The Purple Lights of Joppa opened April 23-May 4, 2014

South Coast Repertory: Nicholas Studio

655 Town Center Drive,

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by SCR

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