South Coast Repertory, for the past 17 years, has given birth to new plays, offering three fully mounted productions and a few staged readings every spring during its Pacific Playwrights Festival.
This year's festival was a mixed bag — one impressive, one not so — and then came "The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois." It's not only the best of the bunch, it's SCR's finest show so far this year.
Adam Rapp's searing, comedy-laced drama about a severely troubled middle-aged man desperate to connect with a daughter he hasn't seen since her birth some 13 years before unfolds on the small Nicholas Studio stage, sandwiched between SCR's two main theaters.
Under the incisive direction of Crispin Whittell, "Purple Lights" throbs with immediacy, its humor deftly counterbalancing the anxiety of its characters. This is a play that demands the attention of a major production.
Ellis (William Apps) is a psychosis-riddled bipolar man with a troubled past (he's served time in prison for a horrendous crime and even now wears an electrified ankle bracelet) who's contacted his teenage daughter through Facebook and meticulously prepares to meet her in person. Eventually, we learn he has some serious issues regarding cats and floor lamps.
When the daughter (Virginia Veale) arrives, she's accompanied by a pal, an African American girl (Christina Elmore) with some major attitude. They're BFFs, but Elmore wastes no time in establishing her superiority and usurping the play's comedic dialogue.
Apps delivers an extraordinary performance, taking uneasy stutter steps toward an awkward reconciliation. His psychotic behavior (playing records — yes, the vinyl variety — overly loud and fretting furiously over the positioning of his lamp) mark him as socially imbalanced.
Veale scarcely utters a word when she and the domineering Elmore first arrive, but given some stage time alone with Apps, she blossoms into a charming, if still cautious, young lady eager to uncover her father's troubled past.
The stage, however, is effectively swiped by the tall, lithe Elmore, who's described by Veale as "a sociopathic hardcore gangsta." Elmore revels in her animated caricature, and director Whittell gives her free rein to establish her authority.
Late in the play, the fourth character arrives — a male nurse (Connor Barrett) charged with maintaining Ellis' mental stability. Barrett, a large, imposing actor, also gives Rapp's play some real-world counterpoint.
Some troubling details emerge later in the long one-act production — an accidental killing, a Taser gun attack. The excellent ensemble cast tackles these with dramatic alacrity, consistently jolting the audience with new revelations.
Unfortunately, "Purple Lights" is ticketed for a brief engagement, closing Sunday. Theatergoers would be advised to reserve seats for this one before they're long gone. It's an unexpected treasure beautifully unearthed at South Coast Repertory.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois"
Where: South Coast Repertory, Nicholas Studio, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $20 to $30
Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org