REVIEW: The Sound Inside at Coal Mine Theatre

Photo by Tim Leyes

Content warning: this review contains explicit discussion of suicide and terminal illness. This review also contains spoilers.

It’s not often my separate jobs as a breaking news reporter and theatre critic converge the way they have this week, echoing each other and fostering new levels of emotional heft on both sides of the journalistic spectrum. 

The short version: a GTA man has been accused of mailing a lethal substance around the world for the purpose of suicide. The legal proceedings are in their early stages, but the case has revealed a dark side of the internet, where forums about taking one’s own life offer “advice” and links to illicit marketplaces. 

By their very nature, these corners of the web tend to be anonymous.

But in The Sound Inside, Adam Rapp’s painful, neurotic play at Coal Mine Theatre, we get to know one user of the suicide forums: Bella Baird, a middle-aged professor dying of cancer and unwilling to proceed with chemotherapy.

The ongoing Toronto case, which I cover in detail at my other job, is a difficult story with no end in sight, but The Sound Inside brings a disturbing topic some surprising humanity — and it does so with impeccable craft.

Bella, played sharply and generously by Moya O’Connell, loves books — probably more than she loves people. She teaches English literature at Yale, and by her own assessment, believes a good writer introduces their protagonist with no more than one or two physical details. That physical detail here is a green cardigan, the easily removable wall between Bella’s tumored stomach and the outside world.

One member of that outside world is her student, Christopher Dunn, played here by the piercing Aidan Correia. Christopher is a freshman, annoying from the first moment we meet him but somehow alluring, too, in his encyclopaedic knowledge of Dostoevsky. Christopher thinks often of endings — of deaths — and at one point he seems completely consumed by how his fledgling novel might end. Bella, too, cares deeply about that novel, sensing the resonances between its protagonist and the very young adult just a few feet away from her.

Bella and Christopher are decades apart in age. There is no amount of mental calculus that can justify the intimate, profound relationship beginning to form between them. 

But form the relationship does. The conversation flows from books to wine to books again, in an easy rhythm reminiscent of the strong-but-not-sexual, female-teacher-male-student dynamic of Jordan Tannahill’s The Listeners. The relationship between Bella and Christopher is inarguably wrong, or at least inappropriate — but the precise nature of that transgression isn’t revealed until late in the play, when Bella asks of Christopher an impossible, earth-shattering favour.

The Sound Inside is a tough, tough watch (and its difficult themes are amply forewarned by Coal Mine’s new content warnings). Rapp is a skilled and sadistic playwright, unafraid to twist his linguistic knife into the audience as Bella hops between direct address and naturalistic dialogue with Christopher, littering epigraphs and grammatical corrections as she speaks.

What makes Leora Morris’ direction so effective is the extent to which we can’t feel it in the audience — it’s at times as if the play hasn’t been directed at all, just two people and a desk on Wes Babcock’s stark set. Unusually for the Coal Mine, The Sound Inside has been staged in a proscenium formation, a surprisingly (but perhaps appropriately, given Bella’s reverence for written history) traditional choice. Morris gets out of the way of her actors and Rapp’s writing, and the effect is stunning: there’s no aesthetic or intellectual fluff between the audience and the story, and that’s exactly as it should be.

In a way, The Sound Inside is classic Coal Mine, a startlingly weighty imported play produced with integrity and verve. But the production is also refreshingly brave in its refusal to succumb to the pretentiousness of its characters — where Rapp’s language occasionally flounders, Morris’ aesthetics and killer actors never do. An easy night at the theatre it is not, but The Sound Inside is for me the highlight of Coal Mine’s season so far.

The Sound Inside runs at Coal Mine Theatre through May 28. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's Senior Editor, a breaking news reporter at CP24, and a former reporter for the Toronto Star. She is President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She also likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.