Hollis Wilhoit in “Nocturne” (Brian Paulette)
Writing is a solipsistic process; writing about writing even moreso. “Nocturne,” a one-man show at The Living Room Theatre (now operating out of The Black Box in the West Bottoms), avoids navel-gazing in its depiction of a writer’s voyage out of loneliness.
“Fifteen years ago I killed my sister,” begins the play’s unnamed narrator (Hollis Wilhoit), a 32-year-old novelist struggling to bear his guilt. If that line seems direct, it’s also deceptive: the narrator spends much of the first scene working up the courage to disclose, circling his subject with abrupt gear shifts and halting trains of thought. As the details fall into place, we realize why. His sister’s death, the result of a car accident, was gruesome and senseless—she was nine years old at the time. The narrator wasn’t really at fault, but that hardly seems to matter to him; to his family, it doesn’t seem to matter at all.
“Nocturne” is one of playwright Adam Rapp’s earliest scripts, and it can feel at times overstuffed with insecure writing flourishes. In the opening scenes in particular, the narrator speaks in dense clumps of similes and metaphors. Humid summer air “fold[s] through the window like an invisible quilt,” while moths dance under a sign “in a great epileptic nimbus.” The narrator sees “a schizophrenic cloud of crows,” or maybe “clouds like frayed gauze.”
When Rapp uses a lighter hand, the language reads truer to character without losing any of its lustre. Books are the narrator’s life, after all. They’re also the only set dressing. Co-director Vanessa Severo—also credited with movement and scenic design—fills the stage with books to be used as furniture, props, and special effects, transforming the Black Box’s small stage into an expansive (and adaptable) fantasy world for Wilhoit and co-director Rusty Sneary to play in. Wilhoit stacks books in domino chains on the stage, tiling them in a repetitive, ritual-tinged movement. In one memorable scene, he uses a pop-up book to cast a silhouette of his sister on the curtained backdrop. The effect was so striking, I was disappointed when it wasn’t repurposed or reused.
Lighting designer Alice Combs finds other ways to evoke (and exploit) shadows, diffusing a quiet elegance over each scene. In one moment, her lights subtly enhance the trajectory of a bare, swinging light bulb; in the next, a floor-mounted fixture creates the sickly glow of a television.
Wilhoit is a relaxed performer and natural storyteller, and his narration is restrained in a way that supports the material. Not even the most melodramatic moment rings false or feels unearned. But perhaps because I’ve seen Wilhoit in other solo shows recently, I wanted a more character-defined palette of vocal patterns, movements, and mannerisms in this one.
Nonetheless, “Nocturne” provides a great vehicle for a storyteller of his caliber. The show is a model of how to transform the sometimes insular, isolating experience of grief into a universal search for connection. It’s also just good programming. “Nocturne” is a small, intimate play—and the Living Room’s small, intimate staging gives it emotional room to run.
“Nocturne,” a production of The Living Room Theatre, runs at the Black Box through December 12. For more information, visit thelivingroomkc.com.