Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Grace"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents copyright 2009 by Tony Annicone

"Grace"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

The current show at The Gamm Theatre is the New England premiere of "Grace", a stimulating, frank and moving examination of the conflict between science and faith through the lens of a contemporary family. It is presented in one act, was written by Irish playwright and director Mick Gordon and University of London philosophy professor A.C. Grayling, an outspoken atheist. The show looks at Grace Friedman who is a mother, a wife and a brilliant professor of natural science. What's more, her assertions on the "absurdity'' of religion have placed her center stage in the public debate over the existence of God. But her private calm is shaken when her son, Tom announces a career change from civil rights attorney to Anglican priest. When Grace falls back on her well-earned cynicism, she is suddenly at odds with the moral pragmatism of her husband, as well as her son's fiancee who is an agnostic due to the suicide of her mother. Together, the family tries to reconcile their ideological differences about faith and religion as they tumble toward personal catastrophe. Director Tony Estrella obtains riveting performances from his four actors as he gives them each their moments to shine in their roles. I have never been disappointed in a show at the Gamm and this show is no exception to that rule. This powerhouse performance brings a spontaneous standing ovation to the cast at its conclusion. Bravo!

Tony directs this show perfectly with all the right nuances and emotional impact. The dramatic confrontations are startling and the crying segments beautifully portrayed. He not only directs this show very well but blocks it wonderfully, too. He has the cast more the chairs, bench and other props on and off stage to keep the scenes in constant motion, making it move from past to present quickly. The set which is circular is a map of England with a tall white wall behind it. The set and costumes are by David T. Howard while the intricate lighting design is by Matthew Terry. Stef Work is the hard working stage manager who keeps things running smoothly all night long.The show can be considered a memory play as the playwrights show a powerful woman in need of help by starting the show off with an interesting and slightly futuristic scene which has Grace participating in a procedure administered by an unseen American Professor, Michael Persinger in Canada. Nicholas Thibeault plays the role as a live voice from offstage. (The father's running joke in the play is that one only works in Canada but doesn't live there.) As we learn from the two professors' dialogue when the "God Helmet" is momentarily placed on Grace's head, it transmits electronic signals to simulate the experience of feeling the presence of someone.(the helmet is a yellow football helmet with electrodes on it) In Grace's case that other worldly presence is not God but that someone gives the play its metaphysical twist. She denies seeing anything but the audience knows better as her memories come flooding through to them. Told in alternating scenes going from past to present, the scene location titles are projected on the white wall of the set which also doubles for slides of a lecture. Grace's character is modeled on Richard Dawkins, an atheist polemicist, she gave up Christianity back in the 1960's rebelling against everything, especially to her abusive religious father . The authors present both sides of the story with an evenhandedness and with a keen sense of how our desires and passions have the capacity to disrupt our most rationally defended ideas.

Wendy Overly as Grace gives a tour-de-force performance. Being able to change from a troubled woman who needs to overcome a tragedy in her life, to a strong teacher in scenes from the past while she lectures her students on Charles Darwin and dismisses William Paley's Watchmaker argument for intelligent design as "Complete and utter bollocks". She delivers Grace's orations with a fire and brimstone delivery. The ultimate acting scene is when her facade begins to crack when she starts taking pills, revealing the wounded, hurting mother beneath her intellectual armor. In the churchyard scene where she is told off by Ruth for not allowing a religious funeral for her son, Wendy's tears flow freely down her face inducing the audience to cry along with her.When the show reaches its final scene, Wendy uses the joke about the blind watchman to her grandchild with humor and pathos which at first startles Tony and Ruth. Grace's son, Tom decides to give up his law practice to become an Episcopal priest and his mother sees that as her personal failure. Arguments in defense of religion are offered by the character of Tom. He recognizes the threat posed by religious extremists and his desire is to turn "violent religion into a better religion.'' Kyle Blanchette tackles his first large role at the Gamm theatre and comes up triumphant. According to Dramaturge, Jennifer Madden, further complicating the matter, the playwrights specifically chose to make Tom the more sympathetic character,Grayling gives the best arguments to the non-religious character, because they belong there and the most charming and attractive personality to the religious one because the seductions of faith are a matter far more of emotion than reason. Tom rejects the violence of religious extremism, calling for a better religion. Furthermore I don't supply cover for sexist, homophobic, bigoted people who put bombs on planes. I did that when I was a lawyer His last time onstage he delivers a sermon on Moses and the Golden Calf as "the great story of religion". As Moses goes up the mountain, he makes a journey to 'the real divine'. There he encounters a feeling of being lost while at the bottom of the mountain is the calf they all bow down to. But it is a con and the whole story about God isn't like anything we expect. That is why it pisses me off when the atheists keep trying to tell me what sort of God I believe in." Kyle makes this appealing character stand out with his fine acting chops. What a great way to play a major role in this wonderful theatre company at a young age..Kyle does topnotch work with the other three performers in this challenging role.

The character of Tony is played excellently by Jim O'Brien, who tries to referee between mother and son with good humor and later with the two women after Tom's death. A comic scene is when Kyle and Jim are dressed as Alice in Wonderland and the Queen of Hearts which is interlaced with the following church scene. Tony is wonderfully drawn as the lapsed Jew who we find in the Churchyard reciting "The Kaddish" in one of his serious moments .The father jokes about a priest being named Tom Friedman being taken seriously to placate his wife and with Tom, he thinks back to the time Tom put Ecstasy in his Chicken Curry and wishes he had some Ecstasy now to escape Grace and Tom's arguments. Tony also talks about the Bengal Tiger which is his belief in Hinduism ticks off the Jews because it is an older religion but he won't convert to it because he will have to give up steak. Jim plays this pragmatic man who has to walk the fine line between his combative wife and religiously inspired son. Karen Carpenter plays her best role to date as Ruth with a strong determination and powerful line delivery. She is loving toward Tom, combative with Grace and friendly with Tony. Karen is not only dramatic in this show but gives a comic turn when she decides to recite a religious poem at the service but instead reads how the parents fucked up their son like their parents did the same thing to them. She puts Grace in her place at the churchyard where she uses her own words against her, you wanted everything up front and keeps Grace away from her grandchild for two years. Ruth and Tom refer to many movies throughout the show including "The Matrix", "A Few Good Men" and "The Sixth Sense". Ruth who is pregnant with Tom's child and coming to terms with her loss is the most compelling of the four characters. She is the struggling agnostic who admits ultimately that her reluctance to marry Tom wasn't because of any aversion to faith but because she knew that he would love God more that her. Karen raging with grief in a scene almost unbearable to watch, she cries out against the 'unbelievably dangerous' power of love which she has recognized in becoming a mother. "I would kill for that child. Kill. No hesitation. For her I would destroy. Absolutely. Mutilate someone. Like Tom was mutilated.. Kindness, that's the big one,not love. It's calm and considerate and hesitant and certainly the more difficult one to do." Ruth named the child after her dead mother, Shandra which means sunflower. Karen has grown so much as an actress since I first saw her in "Lonesome West". She gives the character many layers to the character which makes her far more interesting. Brava! So for a fabulous show which lets the audience figure out what is right for them in a sensational premiere, be sure to catch "Grace" at the Gamm. You will be glad you did.

"Grace" (12 March - 5 April)
THE GAMM THEATRE
172 Exchange Street, PAWTUCKET RI
1 (401)723-4266

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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