The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois

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Photo: Ahron Foster Review
Anyone familiar with the work of the prolific playwright Adam Rapp will hardly be surprised to learn there’s profanity, vulgarity, and a shocking act of violence in his one-act “The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois,” now receiving its New York premiere at Atlantic Theater Company Stage II. But what may be surprising is how utterly moving this work turns out to be as it explores the long-in-coming reunion between 41-year-old loner Ellis (a truly believable William Apps) and the shy, apprehensive teenager Catherine (beautifully embodied by Katherine Reis).

Rapp, who also sensitively directed this work, keeps the nature of their relationship secret for about the first quarter of the play, but I doubt many audiences will be surprised when the truth is revealed. Ellis, who resides in a barely furnished apartment (aptly designed by Andromache Chalfant), is clearly unused to company as he rushes around in his just-bought pants (the tag still on the side), spraying Febreze with a too-heavy hand and nervously reapplying his deodorant.

So it’s not surprising to witness the awkward, initial interactions between himself and Catherine, which are only made tenser by the presence of Catherine’s slightly older best friend Monique (a hilarious Susan Heyward), an African-American girl with a killer vocabulary (albeit one laced with a whole lot of four-letter words), a whole lot of attitude, and, as it later turns out, a fierce instinct for self-protection. She’s also incredibly protective of Catherine – perhaps too much, as we discover she’s withheld some very vital information from her pal – but it’s also a trait that wins us over to her side.

Still, the play really starts to hit the heart when Monique retreats to Ellis’ bedroom, letting the estranged pair begin to reconnect. Rapp and his two main actors make it clear just how difficult that sort of rapprochement can be in any circumstances. And these, as we’ve probably guessed – are far from the best of circumstances. In fact, total disaster is only averted by the arrival of Barrett (a fine Connor Barrett), who knows how to take control, gently but firmly, of both Ellis and the girls.

Intriguingly, despite the Midwestern setting and the extremely disturbing reality of Ellis’ past and present, Joppa, Illinois won’t seem so foreign to most New Yorkers, as this play shines its own bright light on the universal difficulty of having an honest relationship with the people we value most.
By Brian Scott Lipton

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William Apps, Connor Barrett, Susan Heyward, Katherine Reis

Open/Close Dates
Opening 5/25/2016
Closing 6/26/2016

Box Office

Theatre Info
Atlantic Theater Co. Stage 2
330 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011