His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
- Amazing Grace, by John Newton
Craig Wright has often worked in television, and he has written for several series including "Six Feet Under," for which he won an Emmy Award. Every "Six Feet Under" episode began with a death. Grace, Mr. Wright's maddening and disturbing play showing through September 10 at ion theatre's BlkBox space, also begins with a deathseveral of them, in fact.
Giving away a play's ending can be a device to key audience members into watching for clues that will lead to the pre-determined climax. In the case of Grace, knowing that the story ends in murder and suicide not only enlightens the relationships portrayed but also turns the play's title into a lie.
Writing about faith is difficult. As A. O. Scott, a New York Times film critic, wrote recently, "Movies about belief and believers frequently succumb to woozy piety or brittle contempt." Grace succumbs to neither but ironically also fails to illumine as much as it should.
In a modest apartment complex on Florida's east coast, Steve (Francis Gercke) and Sara (Rhianna Basore) are recently arrived from Minnesota. Both evangelical Christians, they made the move because Steve had been searching for investors for a series of hotel renovations he had been planning and an unseen kingpin had offered through an intermediary to provide three times the amount of funding that Steve had wanted. Their neighbor, Sam (Nick Kennedy), an MIT grad and NASA scientist, has been at home recovering from a serious automobile accident that left him disfigured and his fiancée dead. Every three months, the apartments in the complex are visited by Karl (Jim Chovick), an exterminator who sprays for the kinds of bugs that are endemic to the area.
Steve is distracted with his business dealings and Sara doesn't work, so Steve encourages her to reach out to Sam. Sam is in the anger phase of his grieving process, and at first he rejects Sara's ministrations. Eventually, though, Sam comes to appreciate Sara and starts to open up. An intimate relationship forms between them and Steve eventually finds out about it, setting off the final confrontation.
On its surface the story rates a ho-hum-been-there-done-that. The characters aren't all that compelling, and the outcome is too predictable. But the play is called Grace, so one assumes that Mr. Wright wants to explore how the characters' faith, or lack of same, impacts this more-then-twice-told tale. And, indeed, the catastrophes that rain down on all of the characters remind one more of Job than the Psalms. Each of the characters trusts in God's grace at some point in the story, and in each case that trust turns out to be not only unwarranted but often disastrous.
And yet, I don't think that Mr. Wright (who has a degree from Union Theological Seminary) intends to indict religion altogether, just the evangelical version of it. Steve regards good things that happen to him as a sign of God's grace and sees grace as being manifest from his obedience to God's will, as interpreted by his pastors. In other words, if he lives his life the way he's told, God will reward him. Steve does all this and yet he's duped and led to the brink of financial ruin and madness. Steve's descent takes both Sara and Sam with him, and even Karl ends up being involved. Steve never considers that an alternate concept of grace is that it is a gift freely given, not a reward for good behavior, and he never looks for grace outside of signs of earthly success.
Director Glenn Paris' production has the mechanics right, but has missed some of the richness of the writing. In particular, he and scenic designer Matt Scott blocked the action nicely so that one apartment living room serves well as both Steve and Sara's place and Sam's place. Karin Filijan's lighting design complements the banal nature of the setting, while Melanie Chen's sound design is often intrusive, I'm supposing at the behest of either the playwright or the director.
As Steve, Mr. Gercke displays the oiliness of a man emulating an evangelical preacher, but he misses the combination of fear, anger, and shame that the role needs to make it truly tragic. Mr. Kennedy's Sam seems too overcome by his grief and not enough of the analytical and worldly man of science that would have provided an appropriate contrast to Steve. Mr. Chovick appears only at the beginning and again at the end, but he has a compelling story that lends some spiritual weight where it is otherwise lacking. Ms. Basore has internalized quite a bit of Sara into her performance, but it would be interesting to see more of the Sara who believes that her faith tells her to submit to her husband and yet is frightened of the anger she sees in him. Sara wonders whether she has done the right thing for herself by following the path her faith has laid out for her, and Ms. Basore could play more of that contradiction, resulting in a richer performance.
To be fair, Mr. Wright's script doesn't provide many of these contradictions on the surface; it's all in the subtext. I just wish that ion's production had developed that subtext further.
Grace, by Craig Wright, presented by ion theatre. Performs weekends through September 10, 2011, at BlkBox Theatre, Sixth and Pennsylvania Avenues, in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. Tickets ($29, with discounts for students, seniors, and military) are available online or at the door, if available.
With Francis Gercke as Steve, Rhianna Basore as Sara, Nick Kennedy as Sam, and Jim Chovick as Karl.
Directed by Glenn Paris with scenic design by Matt Scott, lighting design by Karin Filijan, sound design by Melanie Chen, props and costumes by Claudio Raygoza, and stage management by Tiffany Fontaine.
Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.