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The Book of Grace

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Doman and Amari Cheatom
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Desolation begins at home in The Book of Grace, the haunting new play by Suzan-Lori Parks at The Public Theater. From the moment you enter the Anspacher Theater there, you're confronted with emptiness on the edge of habitation. Could Eugene Lee's set, strewn with literal dirt, be a giant front-yard sandbox, on which imaginative new structures are to be built by hopeful children? A long-abandoned construction site where the bulldozers stopped halfway through the job? Or maybe a war zone that's already seen humans at their bloodiest, and lived to tell the tale even if they have not?

None of these would be surprising. The play, which has been directed with suffocating sensitivity by James MacDonald and is acted by the adept trio of Amari Cheatom, John Doman, and Elizabeth Marvel, recognizes that all are an integral part of the world we live in - for better or for worse. Or, more likely, for better and for worse, as the three avatars we meet suggest that when relationships - between people, between races, between political groups - turn sour, the results usually lead to destruction of the world, the soul, or both.

Here, the soul is the aptly named Grace (Marvel), a middle-aged waitress who's married to Vet (Doman), a military man whose latest assignment is guarding the Border Fence. She longs for education and spiritual betterment, and when he denies it to her, she retaliates by creating it herself: in the form of a book (the one in the title) that collects all her most positive, inspiring experiences within its pages. Hidden in a recess under the rug, it gives her things to believe in when Vet - who is as obsessed with the Fence for its protection as he is porn for its anesthetic effects - insists she puts her faith and capabilities only in him.

But Grace discovers what she considers a rare instance of potential in Buddy (Cheatom), Vet's son from a previous marriage to a black woman, when he returns after his own (rather less distinguished) time in the service. Interested in her and her life in a way Vet hasn't been in years, Buddy seems to represent all the things the next generation is destined to do right. The key word there being "seems": Graces in the world are few and far between, and Buddy's personal goals and gospels may be different from Vet's - but they're not automatically better, whether for Grace or for anyone else.

Unlike Parks's relatively recent plays at The Public, Fucking A and Topdog/Underdog, The Book of Grace is less didactic and considerably less overheated, and lets its story and characters emerge in a gentler and more effective fashion. The disjointed, pause-heavy nature of the scenes succeeds at establishing the personalities of these people who live and act beyond (and sometimes behind) words. And the announcement over the sound system of The Book's various chapter titles - and, even more compellingly, the footnotes that provide essential background beyond life in the "compound" - never feels like a gimmick, but instead the appropriate justification within Grace's mind for events we may not know how else to interpret.

Elizabeth Marvel
Photo by Joan Marcus.

We come to know Grace best, of course, as much because of her Book as because of Marvel's intricate and commanding portrayal. Her optimism never seems fake or even overstated, despite her Grace's outward brokenness. The thick wall of resolve that Marvel erects around Grace makes you intimately believe in both the character's strengths and weaknesses, which proves crucial for explaining how Grace's yearning to find the best in everyone is both helping her survive and slowly killing her. Marvel shows you how Grace needs Vet for strength and Buddy for softness, without ever completely yielding to either.

The irony is that neither man is exactly how Grace envisions him, and the other two actors play that up beautifully. Cheatom's increasing hardness as the show unfolds really drives home both Buddy's physical and figurative falls from innocence. Doman's regimented rigidity is just right for Vet, his outwardly cool demeanor and inner white-hot rage providing the powerful contrast needed to unite - and eventually divide - Grace and Buddy.

The Book of Grace is, perhaps, less poetic than its playwright intended - except for one very moving scene, in which Grace opens her Book directly to us and explains each page as new parents might their children's latest accomplishments, the language is elevated without ever quite being lyrical. When things start turning political, and eloquent ugliness is required, Parks doesn't quite get as far as she probably should.

She does, however, unlock more lightness within American heaviness than you might expect, especially given that the play's overall message that traditional ideological splits - whether between husband and wife, blacks and whites, red and blue, or the government and the people - are where the United States still needs to heal most. If The Book of Grace is unlikely to salve wounds, new or old, that were incurred along these lines, it skillfully reminds that restoration and redemption can sometimes be only a page turn away.

The Book of Grace
Through April 4
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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