Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Evan Hanover.
The first image we see in Interrobang Theatre’s final play of its 8th season is a man standing over two bodies with a gun to his head. We quickly learn that this is a play that disregards normal notions of time, and are immediately taken back to a point in the past. An hour and half later, the culmination of that first moment leaves us feeling as if we’ve been shot. Craig Wright’s Grace is a powerful, intensely in-your-face drama about faith and science and the point at which they converge. It is full of dark humor and impassioned conversation, its characters are sharply written, and it begs a provocative question about the role of faith in our lives. Directed by Interrobang co-artistic director Georgette Verdin, this play, which due to its structure is fairly spoiler-proof, will stay with you long after it is over.
The man with the gun is revealed to be Steve (Joe Lino), a fundamentalist businessman with a plan to get rich. The plot of the play lies in the intersection of three lives. The first two are Steve and his wife Sara (Laura Berner Taylor), who have recently moved to Florida from Minnesota in the hopes of establishing a new life. These two fervent Believers feel blessed that they appear to be on the verge of a multi-million dollar venture to rehab hotels into an evangelically-themed chain. (Before you scoff at that notion, consider the number of Christians in this country who might enjoy staying at a place with, among other things, a chapel and childrens’ activities keyed to the Bible.) While they thank the Lord for their good fortune, their new neighbor Sam (Evan Linder) is suffering from an unspeakable loss: his fiancée died next to him in a car wreck that also left half his face disfigured a la Phantom of the Opera. (Kudos to Jeremiah Barr for the great makeup job.) He wants nothing to do with God or with other people, so naturally his life becomes entwined with the Christians next door.
It’s Sara, looking for some company during her long and lonely days, who reaches out to Sam. At first rejecting her “charity,” he comes to understand that she needs the company even more than he does, and they establish an unlikely friendship. The structure of the show makes it clear from the beginning that these two are murdered by Sara’s husband as well as the fact that Steve, the driven businessman who dreams of God-given fortune and feels compelled to proselytize to everyone he comes across, has developed a habit of ignoring the needs of his wife. Thus it is not a surprise that she and Sam find solace in each other. The play’s twin focuses are on how that relationship is established and on how Steve begins his downward spiral.
The acting, guided by Verdin, is dynamic and impassioned. Steve is a ball of unstoppable energy: his deep belief that God has answered his prayers for a backer (a mysterious Swiss man who promises him $14 million) and that he must convert everyone he sees (he has a set spiel) propels him through his life, and he never even realizes that he is ignoring Sara. Lino plays him beautifully: his upright enthusiasm for the joys of his life make him someone we could easily like, but his character’s absolute convictions make him come across as a bit of a jerk. In scenes that go backwards in time, Lino is able to make even his arm movements seem reversed. And when confronted with his ultimate fate, all energy drained, he shows us an empty shell.
Linder inhabits a similar shell from the start: devastated by his fiancée’s death, his character mopes around and yells at IT people on the phone. His face hidden even from himself by a mask, he seems less than a whole person. Linder’s ability to get us to see through the mask as Sara does is what shapes his character. It almost seems that we understand Sam better than he understands himself, and that’s a tribute to the actor, who manages to make us care for his character despite his persistent anger and self-revulsion.
Sara is the least histrionic character of the three and the most complex. Because she cannot rely on any easy physical traits, Taylor is forced to internalize, and we can sense her confused emotions from the very start. In one scene in which she reveals a key prayer from her life to Sam, she practically glows while reciting it, and we can see how the memory energizes her even when her life is changing and things are far less certain.
There is a fourth player, an exterminator named Karl who, much to Wright’s credit, has a key role to play as well as a powerful backstory. (Not a moment is wasted in this play.) Walter Brody seemed a bit shaky on opening night, but still his performance was strong overall, and he made the audience smile with several repeated lines and mannerisms.
The playwright has all of this taking place on a single set (beautifully designed by Pauline Olesky) that represents (sometimes simultaneously) both of the apartments these people live in. At first it’s a bit confusing when Sam is sitting on his couch in what appears to be Sara and Steve’s living room, but we get used to the device quickly. Richie Vavrina’s lighting and, especially, Erik Siegling’s sound design help set the stage. (There is a great moment when Sara is speaking to Sam on an answering machine and her voice is dully echoey until he picks up the phone. Siegling’s attention to detail is perfect.) Verdin, for her part, has put all of this together with crisp pacing and realistic character interactions, and her blocking in the backwards sequences is outstanding.
Grace brings together an angry, agnostic, broken man and an Evangelical one in a unique and intense plot that does not parody either man but treats them with empathy. It’s easy to see Steve’s enthusiasm is misplaced, but it’s also easy to see why he feels it. It’s just as easy to see that Sam just needs something to believe in, whatever (or whoever) that might be. Wright doesn’t tie up all loose ends (we never do discover anything about that mysterious backer’s odd motives), but his play leaves the audience silent and barely breathing. Ordinarily silence at the end of a play is a bad thing; here it is a major tribute to the writing, direction, and acting, and the delayed ovation the audience gave on opening night was well deserved. This is a great play, and a fine cap to Interrobang’s powerful season, whose theme has been “What is truth?” This play asks that question in huge bold letters and does not attempt to give any easy answers because there are none. At the end, it felt as if I had been kicked in the gut, and that was the point. This is a show that deserves to be seen: a brilliant, vivid, original piece in a provocative production.
Grace is an Interrobang Theatre Project production now playing at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, until June 3. Performance times vary; check the website at Interrobang Theatre Project. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.