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A CurtainUp Review
The Book of Grace

Plenty of bad things turn good in the fullness of time.— Grace, who bolsters her belief with a book in which she collects clippings of hopeful events as well as stories she makes up.
The Book of Grace
Elizabeth Marvel
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Suzan-Lori Parks knows how to use small casts to explore big issues. Her Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog (review) featured two brothers bonded by love and rivalry to demystify the African-American urban experience. Like Sam Shepard, whose True West her brothers inevitably evoked, Parks doesn't view life in America through rose colored glasses, no matter what the color of her characters' skin.

Book of Grace, Parks' latest play to open at the Public Theater which has nurtured her career, again plays out on a darkly symbolic landscape. The three members of this grim family drama with its overabundance of firecracker elements are a microcosm of the American macrocosm. The sandy backyard that locates them in a border state like Texas also covers the floor of their house and so puts us right into a world that has lost its brick and mortar solidity and now stands on a foundation of sand that keeps shifting precariously.

The play's literal and symbolic meanings are, like Top/Dog, easily comprehended (in fact, too obviously so). There is also some comic relief, as when Grace fantasizes that her book has been published and she's giving a reading. Her podium is her living room's ever present ironing board and what she shares makes that scene not just amusing but enormously poignant.

The story plays out in about an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission. It revolves around Vet (John Doman) a border patrol officer who's about to receive a medal for having single-handedly apprehended a group of Illegal aliens with ar truckload of marijuana. Unexpectedly on hand to attend the ceremony is his son Buddy (Amari Cheatom) by a previous marriage who hasn't been home for fifteen years, though his stepmother Grace (Elizabeth Marvel) has maintained the family connection through letters and, when she could spare it, money. It is Grace's hope that this reunion will be the occasion to forgive and forget incidents from the past and move the family forward. Grace compares Buddy's visit to a weekend at Camp David, the Presidential retreat "where the leaders of the world go to sort out their problems." As she sees it "Camp David begins at home. " But, given this family's deeply dysfunctional history, their "Camp David " is no more likely to result in permanent solutions as many of those high level meetings.

While Grace is the play's determinedly optimistic center, her husband is a scary case of decency gone haywire. Hope for saving this family and the larger world it symbolizes thus rests with Buddy. But, like Jekyll and Hyde, this decorated but out-of-work veteran teeters between following his better and darker instincts. He's essentially the good Buddy despite a difficult childhood and honorable army service. But he's also Snake, his father's son and namesake— a disillusioned, vengeance bent desperado.

Despite Vet's fond memories of watching his son enjoy an ice cream cone, he's so unremittingly evil that things don't look good for a light at the end of a dark tunnel finale. Given the menace overhanging this marriage, Grace's insistence that things can and will get better is courageous but also shows her to be in deep denial about the intractable darkness of the place she's in — a darkness that can't be brightened with daydreams which here take the form of her secret book of stories to validate the idea that it's best to look on the bright side of things, especially since "it doesn't cost hardly anything."

The metaphoric and problematic plot excesses (e.g.—the link between the well pressed pants crease and the carefully patrolled border fence and the unnecessary sexual component in Grace and Buddy's relationship) and the vague references to "unspeakle things" in Vet and Buddy's past, are offset by three rich performances and James MacDonald's tense direction, not to mention excellent work by the design team.

In Grace, Elizabeth Marvel once again has a role that allows her to validate the aptness of her surname. Her colleagues, John Doman and Amari Cheatom, maye have less metaphorically apt names, but they are equally marvelous.

Doman exudes menace — so much so that you feel tense every time Grace rolls back the rug to take out her secret book. He manages to make the steam in the iron with which he presses his uniform land like bullets. He makes padding down his son for concealed weapons rather than returning a hug as believable as it is bizarre. Cheatom taps into Buddy/Snake's neediness as well as his rage.

Eugene Lee's chillingly shabby interior is of a piece with the exterior. A wooden walkway works well for the various monologues (the opening monologue that alternates between the three actors establishes the ominous mood). The scenery is effectively accented by Jean Kalman's lighting, and the characters and their situation by Susan Hilfterty's costumes.

As she has in her previous work, Suzan-Lori Parks brings moments of poetry to this dark and dismal picture of America's underbelly. Luckily for theatergoers, this prolific and versatile writer has found the support for her hopes and dreams that's been denied to her characters.

The The Book of Grace by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by James Macdonald
Cast: Amari Cheatom as Buddy, John Doman as Vet, and Elizabeth Marvel as Grace
Set Design: Eugene Lee
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Jean Kalman
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Projection/Video Design: Jeff Sugg
Dramaturgy: John Dias
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Rachel Motz
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission
Public Theater 420 Lafayette Street
From 3/02/10; opening 3/17/10; closing 4/04/10
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/13/10 press preview
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