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A CurtainUp Review

Amazing Grace

Take a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner (Matt Cristofer) penning the script, a well-known stage and screen actress (Marsha Mason) playing the lead, add a 1996 American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for its initial Pittsburgh run -- mix it all together and add the imprimatur of the Blue Light Theater Company and you have the potential for another worthy addition to this season's burgeoning crop of dramas.

I suppose I should have thrown into this equation the fact that Amazing Grace is also based on a true crime story that seems to have stepped right out of yesterday's headlines. You see it's main character, like a recently executed woman, is a condemned mass murderer. Her "role model" is a North Carolina Woman named Velma Barfield who was executed in North Carolina in 1984 for killing several people who were in her care and related to her.

Having seen two true crime plays this season -- one terrific play based on a long ago true crime (Never The Sinner -- see link to review at end) and one that was an unpleasant and unfunny slice of life (Hazelwood Jr. High --see link to review at end) -- I naturally hoped Amazing Grace would be in the mold of Sinner. As it turns out, it stands apart from both -- a strong, well directed play with a seven fine actors giving solid support to the bravura performance of the lead player, Marsha Mason.

Ms. Mason is tremendously persuasive as an emotionally and socially impoverished woman who, empowered for the first time after killing her mother in a fit of almost understandable frustration, gives in to the killing urge several more times. She deftly navigates her character's horrific journey from frail, meek caretaker who has only barely survived childhood abuse to crafty manipulator and liar, to death row inmate almost cheerfully engrossed in a needlepoint canvas she won't have time to finish. Selena Goodall, like Leopold and Loeb in Never the Sinner has gone beyond the boundaries of human decency. You can't love her or even sympathize with her. And even if you don't buy the spiritual "grace" she finds for herself, her story leaves you thinking about the redemptive power of understanding.

It's the same basic point made by Clarence Darrow when he pleaded that the jury vote for Leopold and Loeb's life imprisonment instead of hanging - "I could hate the sin . . .but never the sinner". There are other surface resemblances between these two plays, notably in the use of a chorus of witnesses and participants in the story and the generally smart direction.

In the final countdown, however, Amazing Grace lacks the snap, crackle and pop of the Leopold and Loeb story. You know how both stories are going to end, yet Never the Sinner is suspenseful and full of surprising little touches, whereas Amazing Grace plods, at times awkwardly, towards its somber and inevitable end without any variation in the beat. This overall drabness is underscored by Michael Schweikardt's spare, utilitarian set which lacks a certain theatricality. This is perhaps best illustrated by the metal folding chairs at either side of the stage which would look less makeshift an untheatrical if someone had taken the trouble to buy a set in grey or black in keeping with the central set

The supporting cast, as already mentioned, deserves its own round of applause. Three who are particularly noteworthy are: Carlin Glynn as Vivian, Selena's only real friend and the sister of one of her victims is outstanding in that part as well as a minor doubling-up role as a prosecutor . . . Stephen Bradbury. first as Vivian's hapless brother an later as a radio preacher whose sermons lead to Serena's period of grace, (plus the ability to help others by the laying on of hands), before death by lethal injection . . . and Adina Porter who doubles as a fortune teller and as a Lesbian prison inmate and friend of Serena's.

Hazelwood Jr. High
Never the Sinner

By Michael Cristofer
Directed b y Edward Gilbert
Starring Marsha Mason
Featuring: Carlin Glynn, Bethel Leslie, Stephen C. Bradbury, Adina Porter, Marsha Dietlin, Jerry Mayer and Anthony Lamont
Sets: Michael Schweikardt
Costumes: Laurie Churba
Lighting: Tom Sturge
Theatre Four, 424 West 55th St.,(212/239-6200).
2/24/98-4/19/98; opens 3/15
Reviewed 3/16/98 by Elyse Sommer

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