BWW Reiews: Circuit Playhouse in Memphis Offers Moments of GRACE
Don't Put Your Faith in HIMmelman
Even before Circuit Playhouse's production of Craig Wright's GRACE begins, a radio loudly plays a religious/philosophical debate about such topics as infinity, Creationism, the "arrogance of Christianity," etc. There is also something apparently wrong with the set: At a table, one chair is upright; the other, overturned.
Within moments, we witness what happens at the end of the play: What we see at the beginning is what we will see at the end. Then, we back up a bit - to the beginning, when an excited, evangelical Steve enters with some exciting news: An elusive Swiss financier named Himmelman will soon make Steve's dreams of opening a chain of gospel-themed hotels come true (lots of humor here, as suggested names like "New Restament" and "Upper Rooms" are bandied about).
As we witness the exchange between apartment-bound wife Sara (longing for a son and questioning her husband's business acumen), exterminator Karl enters. (Karl is rather like DEATHTRAP's "Helga Ten Dorff"). A fourth character, reclusive accident victim Sam, who has been somehow responsible for the tragic accident that claimed his fiancée, is wallowing in remorse and trying desperately to salvage images of his previous life from the fading memory cards.
It won't be long before Steve's "belief" clashes with Sam's "knowledge" (Sam's job with NASA is to isolate "pure information"). It becomes very clear that no one here has any answers and that no system is "perfect"; what is clear is that there are moments of "grace" which seem to come at unexpected times and which provide a momentary light and connection that institutions and systems of thought can't always explain (Sara experienced it in the sad image of a child supposedly brought back to life, the disbelieving Sam experiences it in an unanticipated moment of prayer with Sara, and Karl experiences it in - of all places - a Starbuck's). As Steve's world falls apart ("Himmelman" proves as out of reach as the Deity), his dreams and his reality both crumble. Interestingly, he is the one character who will not experience a moment of grace. Destruction is a recurring motif in this play. Obviously, Karl is in pursuit of bugs; yet, he also describes his past with Jew-destroying Nazis. Sam, too, has been indirectly responsible for the death of his fiancée as a result of pettiness.
The cast of four offer strongly divergent performances. Initially appearing with the gangly enthusiasm of a young Anthony Perkins or Dean Jones, Christopher Joel Onken unravels convincingly as the play reaches its violent conclusion; John Maness, so good in A STEADY RAIN, makes the initially off-putting, scarred "Sam" a strong and sympathetic character; and that smart young actress Morgan Howard (eschewing the quirky humor of her "Mae" in REEFER MADNESS) is sad and sweet as "fish out of water" "Sara." Michael Gravois brings his usual expertise to the rather surprising role of "Karl" (the last laughs in the play are entirely unexpected and rightfully belong to him). Teddy Eck has directed with a real affinity for the material and his cast. Through May 4