‘The Sound Inside’ features a stunning performance by Diana Dresser

Yale creative writing professor Bella Baird has that affliction so common among writers: the crippling tick-tock between her last completed work and whatever may come next. For Bella, it’s been 17 years since the publication of her somewhat successful but now mostly forgotten novel, and she now focuses her talents on trying to improve the writing of others.

That’s the surface story of Adam Rapp’s 2018 drama The Sound Inside, just opened at Denver’s Curious Theatre Company in its regional premiere. As the play unfolds, so do many more layers of Bella’s story. She may tell herself she’s just fine living alone in campus housing with no close friends, but two major events that happen at about the same time upend her life, her heart is laid bare and she suddenly must confront the question of whether she even wants this life any longer.

The first is a devastating cancer diagnosis which, her doctor tells her, may have only about a 20% chance of being successfully treated. The second is an unlikely friendship she strikes up with a similarly lost soul — a freshman named Christopher Dodd whose awkwardness and hostility toward higher education quickly move from repellent to intriguing in the eyes of Bella.

Director Sabin Epstein made the ideal choice in casting Diana Dresser as Bella. When she appears at the top of the show in low light wearing a baggy sweater, she’s dwarfed by the set pieces, which include a heavy, industrial-style desk and a number of bookshelves suspended on the wall of the high-ceilinged Curious stage. Dresser’s own small stature seems perfect for Bella, a woman in her 50s who feels herself becoming nearly invisible to those around her. And when she begins addressing the audience as narrator in a quiet voice, we’re ready to listen.

It’s a lengthy opening monologue, beautifully done by Dresser and full of details about Bella’s current situation — including the cancer diagnosis not unlike that which killed her mother.

actors in 'the sound inside'
Mikah Conway and Diana Dresser | Photo: Michael Ensminger Photography

Before long we meet Christopher, played by recent DU grad Mikah Conway in his professional debut. He’s part angry young man and part literary savant — a student with great potential who’s already sabotaging himself because he, as Bella tells him, isn’t playing the game. Conway does a nice job with Christopher, a character prone to outbursts and other bad behavior (including spitting on the floor of Bella’s office). Managing this dark side of Christopher with the sympathetic side the script needs the audience to understand is a juggling act, and Conway pulls it off nicely.

Rapp’s script uses the device of having Bella narrate alongside her regular lines, so she may comment on Christopher’s latest outburst as an aside to the audience, then seamlessly shift back to addressing him. It’s an effective technique as it serves to bring the audience along in her thoughts alongside what she says aloud to him. There is still a lot left unsaid in this play, including a sort of double-surprise ending that’s as much an ellipsis as the final line of Christopher’s novella.

But this is mostly Bella’s story, and she’s onstage alone for probably 75% of the time. Even when he’s not onstage, Christopher’s presence looms large as his own experiences — though vastly different from hers — start to invade her thoughts and push her toward some radical ideas about how to confront what appears to be a terminal diagnosis. When she asks for his help in pursuing it, it marks a climax in their new but deep relationship.

While their closeness at times hints at possible physical interaction, it’s not in the cards for two people so far apart in age and, of course, health. Christopher at one point tells Bella he doesn’t even particularly care to be touched, which is why when he reaches out to caress her face during one exchange, it leaves her reeling. She seeks release instead by picking up a guy at the local bar, and describes the encounter at a nearby Econo Lodge in a funny set of observations that provide a little levity in an otherwise dark play.

There are too many potential spoilers to describe much of what happens in the final third of The Sound Inside, but Rapp managed to create a finale that’s still satisfying despite its ambiguity. Not an easy thing to pull off!

The Sound Inside opened in 2018 and garnered several Tony nominations (the Broadway production starred Mary Louise Parker as Bella). Like so many Curious choices, it’s a demanding piece of theatre that doesn’t go down easy but provides a lot to think about after the curtain comes down. Dresser delivers a devastating performance that’s incredibly poignant and thoughtful — an ideal pairing of actor and material that demands to be seen.