Also see Sharon's review of Marvelous Wonderettes
Billed as a dark comedy, the play would probably come off as a straightforward laugh-fest were it not for the fact that the characters all end up dead. As this would be a shocking coda to a comedy, Wright has moved the murder/suicide to the top of play - opening with the killings, which are portrayed in a jerky "rewind" style that immediately engages. Thereafter, the single-acter goes back an unknown amount of time to let us in on the events that brought the characters to this point - and what could have been a simple comedy is now a character study.
We are first introduced to Steve and Sara, recently moved to Florida from Minnesota. Steve is excited because he has just obtained financing for his real estate dream: a chain of gospel-themed hotels. ("Where would Jesus stay?") Having obtained a promise for a loan, the first thing the couple does to celebrate is pray. After all, Steve believes the funds are proof that God answers their prayers. It's vindication, agrees Sara, of "the seed/harvest paradigm."
If you met Steve in the real world, you'd probably find him pretty annoying. He tries to sell people on real estate the same way he tries to sell them on the Lord - don't bother him about petty details (like money); he concentrates on what he believes to be a good deal. But Brad Price plays him with such absolute truth, Steve is hilarious. How can you not laugh at a guy who is such a good Christian, he yells "Dog!" instead of any other exclamation? Price nearly makes you forget that Steve is destined to end this play killing his wife and putting the gun to his own head.
The first person we get to see Steve ply his sales pitch on is Karl, an older fellow who comes by to exterminate the Florida condo. As soon as Steve asks Karl if he went to church as a child, Karl pegs him for a "Jesus Freak," and, when Steve pushes, Karl tells him that there is no God. When asked to explain, Karl launches into a story about growing up in Germany in 1936. Steve immediately figures Karl to be Jewish, and the audience gears up to see what happens when Jesus Freak meets Holocaust Survivor. But Wright isn't taking the obvious way out, and Karl's harrowing story - wonderfully delivered by Dana Kelly, Jr. - is not the expected.
Steve's second target is their next-door neighbor, Sam. Sam has his own reasons for not having faith. He was in a dreadful car accident that killed his girlfriend and left him disfigured. When we first meet Sam, he's got very little patience - his computer is eating his digital photos, Tech Support keeps transferring him from operator to operator, the neighbors are playing their annoying Christian Rock way too loud, and Sara keeps trying to "reach out" to him by leaving little notes at his door. When he finally exchanges words with Sara, they aren't very polite.
But Sara is persistent, and eventually, Sam and Sara become friends. When Sara invites Sam over, Steve tries to sell Sam on both his hotel chain and his faith. At this point, I began getting disappointed in Eric Pargac's performance as Sam, as he was showing a quality that I hadn't expected in the character given his earlier introduction. When trying to describe the way Sam responded to Steve, I wrote in my notes words like "gentleness" and "kindness," but those weren't exactly it. I ultimately came up with "grace," and then my jaw dropped as I remembered the title of the play, and realized this was absolutely intentional.
There's a lot of that sort of thing in this play; Wright doesn't do anything without a reason. There's only one condo set in Grace, but Sam uses it simultaneously with Steve and Sara. Other plays have done this - having different characters share the same place (often in different time periods) - but the use is very deliberate in this play. One of the express themes of Grace is the space between people and how to bridge it, so when the play's characters are sharing the same space, there's a purpose to it. And, of course, there's a purpose to opening the play with the killings. At its most straightforward, Grace is about the downfall of a man who believes he's been abandoned by a God he thought he had an agreement with. But by giving the audience that ending at the beginning, Wright paradoxically opens up the question of free will - we know one possible ending, but will this particular set of interactions between these four characters have the same result? Wright's play is very nearly devious in the way it raises difficult questions in what appears to be a simple story, and the Furious Theatre Company is to be commended for the way its production deftly mines the script's depths.
Grace plays at the Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre through November 11, 2006. For tickets and information, see www.furioustheatre.org.
The Furious Theatre Company presents Grace by Craig Wright. Directed by Damaso Rodriguez. Stage Manager Sudro Brown II; Scenic Design Shawn Lee; Production Manager Nick Cernoch; Costume Design Megan Goodchild; Lighting Design Christie Wright; Technical Director Shawn Lee; Sound Design Doug Newell; Assistant Director Katie Davies; Graphic Design Eric Pargac; Hair and Makeup Design Christa McCarthy; Publicist David Elzer, DEMAND PR; Producer Vonessa Martin; Program Design John Hennessy; Crew Shawn Lee & Nick Cernoch.
Photo: Anthony Masters