Forty-one year old Ellis Shook (played by William Apps) lives in a small duplex apartment in Paducah, Kentucky, working at nights buffing floors. For pleasure he often goes to the river to watch the lights of the refineries in Joppa, Illinois, across the way. When we meet him, he is nervously getting ready for visitors. He sticks his deodorant under a pillow on his sofa, and puts the air sanitizer in the freezer. Obviously, he is suffering from some condition. Later, we find out that that he has “bipolar affective disorder with psychosis” which may explain why he is so socially inept around other people. His appointment is with two teenage girls who eventually turn out to be his silent 13-year-old daughter Catherine and her brilliant streetwise friend, schoolmate and protector Monique with a foul mouth. Eventually it is revealed that Ellis has not seen his daughter since she was nine months old when he abandoned her and her mother in Joppa, Illinois.
After a good deal of awkwardness with much silence from Catherine and much baiting from the extroverted Monique, father and daughter begin to get to know each other. However, there are several dark places in Ellis’ life that Catherine knows little about. Performed in real time, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is a series of revelations that lead to at least two major confrontations. Not much happens but much is exposed.
Unfortunately, in 2016 the revelations do not come as that surprising as the play hints from the beginning at sinister things to come. However, the actors make this encounter entirely authentic and the portrait of Ellis and his life is fully fleshed out. Apps is entirely convincing as the lonely, sad victim of impulses he can always control but with a great deal of self-knowledge which is divulged to us along the way. Apps makes Ellis sympathetic despite his character’s violent past.
Susan Heyward’s Monique, described as a linguist, feminist and sociopathic hardcore gangsta, is so vibrant a personality that she threatens to hijack the play and deserves a story of her own. Part of her pugnacious personality is explained by her Marine father having died in Iraq and her uncle being a prison corrections officer. As Catherine, Katherine Reis is endearing as the daughter who eventually opens up and reveals her dreams and dislikes to the father she doesn’t remember. Connor Barrett puts in an appearance halfway through the play as Ellis’ efficient, caring nurse.
Rapp’s direction is remarkably unobtrusive, allowing the play to follow naturally to its not so inevitable conclusion. Andromache Chalfant has designed the pitch–perfect set for Ellis’ bland apartment decorated with the minimum of furniture as if for someone just passing through. The casual contemporary costumes by Jessica Pabst have the lived in look of the actors wearing their own clothes. J. David Brimmer is responsible for the fight choreography for some of the more dramatic moments.
Adam Rapp’s The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is a “little” play in that its ambitions are small and its dramaturgy is rather straight-forward. Having almost no story, it is ultimately a character study of troubled people trying to deal with the hand they have been dealt. It does offer naturalistic acting that makes the play compelling even while it doles out its revelations in tiny doses.
The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois (through June 26, 2016)
Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission