THE BOOK OF GRACE
A Play by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by: David D. Wheeler
Assistant director, Lewis Wheeler. Sets, Eric D. Diaz. Lights, Kenneth Helvig. Costumes, Tristan Scott Barton Raines. Sound, David Wilson. Projection, Jason Weber. Presented by Company One.
Through May 7, 2011
Wild Wednesdays All tickets $18
Thursday and Sunday Full — $30 (side); $35 (center) Students (w/ ID) —$15 (all tickets) Seniors — $30 (all tickets)
Friday & Saturday Full — $33 (side); $38 (center) Students (w/ ID) — $15 (all tickets) Seniors — $30 (all tickets)
Pay What You Can Performances (min $6) – Sundays, April 17 & 24, 2p.m.
All the pieces are there. Talented actors, world class director, award winning playwright, creative theater company, great set, intimate theater space to contain the action. Alas, all these elements float along on the surface together for a bit over two hours like pieces of a puzzle, touching, rebounding off one another but never locking together in a way that satisfies.
From the play’s program, we know that a young man will appear at the south Texas border town home of his estranged father and the father’s young second wife. And we know that secrets will be revealed and apparent tranquility will be shattered.
The theater darkens for the opening act. Each of the three characters is spotlighted for a brief monologue that sets the scene and gives us a big chunk of information about their emotional states.
The young man, Buddy (Jesse Tolbert) is black. His father and stepmother, awaiting their turn for their initial monologue, are white. Buddy has been honorably discharged from the Army. After years of little communication between them, he’s sought out his father in this Texas border town to confront him for an act he may have committed when Buddy was a boy. Buddy wants an apology for we’re led to believe was sexual abuse, maybe even wants a declaration of love from a man who may not be capable of that emotion.
The brittle character of Buddy’s white father, Vet (Steven Barkhimer), describes his job of keeping the US border safe from intrusion by aliens. “Aliens. That’s what we’re up against… . They’re not like us. That’s why we’ve got to keep them out,’’ says Vet, adding pointedly, “Sometimes the alien is right in your own home. Sometimes right in your own blood. And you’ve got to build a wall around it.’’
It’s clear that Vet’s ideas of containment aren’t confined to illegal immigrants. “My shrink says I have boundary issues,” he says. He also has a mean streak.
We see Grace (Frances Idlebrook), Vet’s wife, in her waitress outfit, giving Vet sunny advice on how to manage his first conversation with the estranged son he hasn’t seen in years. With her body language, wringing of hands and forced smile, there is something manic about Grace’s there’s-goodness-to-be-found-all-around-us attitude.
What happens in the first encounter between Grace and Buddy is unexpected to the point of stretching credulity. They’re both living in the grip of Vet’s demeaning, almost clinical behavior but there’s enough tension building in the play to make their behavior out of place, perhaps the playwright’s strategy to make the arc of the play more fraught than it already is.
Frances Idlebrook is terrific as Grace, the tightly wound wife contained under Vet’s thumb. Grace has discovered that the only safe way to channel her fear of Vet is to secretly write a book, The Book of Grace, in which she inserts stories and anecdotes of evidence that good does exist outside the boundaries of her own house.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks uses Grace as a narrator to help unfold the story. Grace’s reading of her book, and her frequent brief appearances to deliver “footnotes” during the action, is the window through which Parks gives us the back-story.
Buddy’s references to an act Vet may have committed on him is powerful stuff. Vet’s obsessive need to keep his trousers neatly creased, and comparing the creases to the borders he protects, “Everything on this side is ours. Everything on that side is yours. You stay where you belong, we stay where we belong,” reveals his struggle to keep his inner life as contained as possible. This is a man with serious trust issues.
The tension that builds during the first act and a half seems to hit its own border in the last two scenes. Immediately preceding these scenes, Grace’s searing meltdown at Vet’s cruelty, her white hot rage at Vet for controlling her life as assiduously as he patrols the US border, is that of a woman unspooling from years of oppression. It’s an awe-inspiring piece of acting.
The action becomes unnaturally forced after that. Buddy’s behavior in the final scene between Grace and Vet is unfathomable, given his experience with Vet and his plan to seek revenge. The final scene, which would be spoiler material to divulge, is just not credible, way too forced – too much the playwright’s need to tidy up what hasn’t been resolved already.
We’re left with three damaged souls in limbo. If any play needed moments of catharsis to relieve the emotional pain suffered all around, it would be The Book of Grace. I exited the theater thinking that I witnessed three powerful performances that left me thinking, “What’s the point?”
Photos by Lisa Voll courtesy of Company One website.