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"Grace"

Fall from grace 

"Grace"

Craig Wright's "Grace" had a modest Broadway run a few years ago, and Out of Pocket's presentation at MuCCC suggests why it was modest. Despite interesting ideas and moments, it doesn't convince as a whole. However, at MuCCC, "Grace" gets a production that at least shows the play to good advantage, and shows off some skillful acting.

"Grace" begins with a conversation between Steve (Tom Bigongiari) and his quiet, submissive wife Sara (Erin Kate Howard); the young Christian couple have relocated to Florida from Minnesota. They're discussing the thing that brought them there: the opportunity for Steve to make it big with a scheme to buy up hotels and refurbish them as "Christian motels" called Crossroads Inns. (Heavy symbolism alert.) It sounds too good to be true, and of course everybody but Steve recognizes that it is, as he waits patiently for a multimillion-dollar windfall from a mysterious Mr. Himmelman. (Heavier symbolism alert, if you know German.)

Steve soon tries to involve their neighbor Sam (Adam Petzold) in this plan; he isn't interested, and even less interested in Steve's attempts to bully him into acknowledging the existence of God. Sam is a NASA scientist who recently lost his fiancé and was himself horribly disfigured in a car accident. He has no religious feeling, which puts him at odds with Steve but is a challenge to Sara. Sara and Sam fall in love, Steve never hears from Himmelman and winds up in big trouble, and ... it doesn't end well for anybody.

The play's take-no-prisoners ending is not very convincing. Wright's plotting is predictable, and his religious (or atheistic) symbolism is pretty obvious, but "Grace" does have some good points as a theater piece: it's compact, it's not dull, and there are a number of sharp lines and a couple of telling scenes. (In general, the quieter the scene, the more effective it is.) Wright is especially good in getting down the born-again Christian "Prayer Warriors" double talk that Steve specializes in. And I am completely on board with his depiction of Florida as a hot, bug-ridden, amoral hellhole.

Despite their cardboard elements, Wright gives his characters very actable parts, and the four actors that Jeff Siuda has directed for his cast fill in between the lines very well. Tom Bigongiari is most effective in his earlier scenes, as a man blindly certain that his faith will lead to worldly success. He's a little less powerful near the finish, when he reaches the end of his rope and his faith turns to dust — but the play goes awry here, too, despite the writer's attempt to ramp up the excitement.

Erin Kate Howard, one of the most appealing actresses in Rochester theater, is well cast, and her careful charting of Sara's infatuation with Sam is very convincing. Adam Petzold sometimes seems cast for his ability to be snarly and surly, and he certainly brings that quality to his first scene; but when he slowly lets down his guard later, in a finely-paced scene alone with Sara, both he and Howard are very involving.

There's a fourth role in "Grace," a German immigrant who is an exterminator for the apartment complex where the others live. Wright has made him more of a plot device than a real character, but again, the role still offers some material for an actor to bite into. Andrew Cowen is as appropriately cast as everyone else in the show, but seemed a little tentative in his delivery on opening night.

"Grace" is a play with problems, but it's got some good stuff in it too. It's worthwhile making the trip to MuCCC to see what this director and these actors are able to make of it.

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