Theatre Mirror Reviews - "States of Grace"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Larry Stark

"States of Grace"

by Debra Wise
In collaboration with The Company
Inspired by the stories of Grace Paley Directed by Greg Smucker

Concept by Larry Siegel, Debra Wise Set and Puppets Designed by David Fichter
Lighting Design Karen Perlow
Costume Design by Heidi Hermiller
Technical Design by Will Cabell
Puppet Fabrication by Fay Dupras
Composer/Sound Design/Musician Evan Harlan
Assistant Stage Managers Juliet Cocca, Marc Miller
Stage Manager Marsha Smith

Owen Doyle
Faye Dupras
Khalil Flemming
Debra Wise Radio Voice...Wes Saunders

The prevailing wisdom is that movies or plays about writers are boring because nothing is more boring than watching a person sit typing all night. But in "States of Grace" Debra Wise and the Underground Railway Theater stand this truism on its head by allowing the author (in this case Grace Paley) to talk, often about writing itself, with her own characters ... who are often friends or family. Early on the comments she gets suggests she suffers from "I-strain" and someone offers the suggestion "try making yourself a MINOR character for a change!" By the magic of puppetry Paley (played by Debra Wise) sits typing in a kitchen where people pop out of cupboards, closets, the washer, the fridge and even out of the overflowing waste-basket to put their two cents in, and Paley argues with them all.

Grace talks (well, Debra talks, in a pretty good N'Yawk accent) to her old friend Rose, who pops in from a cupboard working on her windowbox-garden. Her father, in bed because his legs no longer work, pops out of the washer --- and for him she narrates a story in the voice of an old pharmacist who thinks Blacks coming to his drug-shop degrades the neighborhood --- whose daughter gives him a Black grandson! (He pops up, like kids do, all over --- a nice kid with a thoughtful, expressive face [The puppets were designed by David Fichter and made by Faye Dupras, who works many of them {and speaks for some} from backstage; these are rod-puppets, whose arms rather than mouths move to add expression to their voices].) Grace's "main man" is played by Owen Doyle, who is in the ice-box; head and hands are his, but body and legs are puppets. But he speaks from bed, so it works. And, just to break everyone's expectations in two, Khalil Flemming (an experienced actor still in grade school) walks into the kitchen as a Black grandson who looks a lot like someone we've seen before...

The spirit of pages rejected, who rises out of the waste-basket, silently passes her notes. And it's true that a waste-basket full of re-written pages is probably the best editor. (I can't re-write; or maybe I just churn the words around and around in the cement-mixer of my skull "till they're ready." Here take a look and see for yourself; but maybe that's why I've been published exactly TWICE, 35 years apart, and Grace Paley's published three magnificent story collections and got a play written about her.)

This play is magnificent --- oh, and I don't want to ignore David Fichter's sprawling, semi-cubist backdrop (A sketch for it is a precious cover for the program!), or Karen Perlow's lights which include pin-spotting photographs on the set, and "supertitles" of the stories that are being told, or Evan Harlan's sound and original music. But, from talking to Larry Siegel about the concept through writing it with the help of the entire Company, and then stepping onstage as its "star", the credit for it rests with another of my favorite actresses --- Debra Wise. And with a lady she's loved for decades, Grace Paley herself.

( a k a larry stark )

"States of Grace" (25 January - 10 February)
@ Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON MA
1 (781)643-6916

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