Review: In THE BOOK OF GRACE from Rapid Lemon, a Penchant for Grand Themes and Intoxicating Characters, Outstanding Cast

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By: Jan. 15, 2024
Review: In THE BOOK OF GRACE from Rapid Lemon, a Penchant for Grand Themes and Intoxicating Characters, Outstanding Cast

Playwright Suzan Lori-Parks evidently likes to swing for the fences. Both in The Book of Grace, now being presented by Rapid Lemon, and in f-ing A, which I caught in Iron Crow’s 2017 local staging, she is fearless in presenting an extravagantly exaggerated and often violent version of the realities she sees in our country today. In both shows, things are so bad that despair seems the only reasonable response – and yet optimism, however irrational, cannot be absolutely extinguished. She exhibits an extravagant talent and a penchant for grand themes – and a pervasive if not totally dominant skepticism.

Here the optimist is the eponymous Grace (Jess Rivera), whose sweetness and determination to see “evidence of good” everywhere, and to memorialize it in a scrapbook she’s assembling (which she calls “The Book of Grace”) almost surpasses understanding. She certainly has little to be optimistic about, being as she’s married to Vet (Benny Pope), a member of the Border Patrol, a man whose whole imagination is consumed with the notion of borders – and in that notion, borders always prove to reinforce Vet’s advantages and diminish those of the people around him, including those closest. Most notably, Vet’s borders exclude almost all possibilities of agency and happiness for his wife Grace.

But Grace is not the only person who has suffered Vet’s oppression; so has his son Buddy (Pierre Walters). In his marriage to Buddy’s mother and in his relationship to Buddy, Vet has done things that are “unspeakable” (and unidentified) which Buddy will call crimes, in addition to which he’s dug holes in the back yard that he threatens to put Buddy and his mother in if they cross him. (And he has a hole for Grace now as well.)

Despite or perhaps because of his cruelty (which might work out well for him in a border patrol), there is going to be some kind of ceremony in his honor featuring a marching band, at which he’ll be receiving a medal from the governor and giving a speech, and he claims to be on a “good foot” now. The acid test for that “good foot” claim, however, might be the way he treats people. Especially Buddy, now that Buddy has turned up, at Grace’s importuning. Buddy, a young veteran recently returned from military service in which he earned his own medal, is looking for a job, and a good word from his father might snag him the offer of one with the Border Patrol, leading perhaps to father and son working side-by-side, which would also be one of Grace’s good things. And if there isn’t a paternal good word – well, that might lead to a resumption of the earlier alienation between father and son – or to something even worse.

This may be the place to note in passing that a critic reviewing the second production of the play (in Austin, Texas, not too far from the Mexican border) commented that in the real-life U.S. Border Patrol, anti-nepotism rules would block the kind of favor Buddy is seeking from his dad. I don’t think that’s a very telling comment, because this isn’t exactly the real-life Mexican border we’re talking about either. We’re in some fanciful land, not exactly the U.S., even if it’s called that. Whatever the name, it’s really the land of patriarchy. The Fence is described in terms suitable for one of the Wonders of the World, explicitly compared with the Great Wall of China. The point of the Border and the men who defend it in this play is to defend privilege and status more than to demarcate political territory.

It becomes apparent about halfway through the action that the ceremony will mark the climax to the play, and that the nature of the climax will be shaped in large measure by Vet’s response to his son’s entreaty for help joining the Border Patrol. Obviously, given Parks’ proclivities and style, something over-the-top is coming after Vet finally gives his response. And Parks certainly delivers over-the-top events after the response becomes clear. I wish I could leave it at that, but I need to add, without, I hope, revealing too much about the conclusion, that it contains both plot and thematic self-contradictions.

Buddy, who begins calling himself Snake, ends up rejecting his father’s “good foot” claim, in detail and categorically, delivering a chilling, angry soliloquy that is five of the most spellbinding minutes of theater I’ve attended recently, served up satisfyingly by Pierre Walters, who does not miss a single trick that Parks planted in those lines. But then Snake’s actions don’t entirely tally with the speech. As to Grace, she is finally driven to stand up to Vet, with odd consequences. What we see is shortly after Grace takes her stand is contradicted by something else we see a little later, and the script seems to confirm that both the first and the second plot developments are real. So what has really happened? Grace’s and Buddy’s stories then shortly afterwards end on a note of intertwined irresolution. But it appears at least possible that Grace and Buddy may have broken through to a world where Grace’s optimism may finally not be doomed to disappointment – when Parks abruptly rings down the curtain.

As the story goes, so the themes go as well. Parks is not just writing a family drama; she’s also denouncing perennial flaws in our national character. Vet is those flaws writ large: greedy, territorial, and prone to sexual jealousy, mean-spiritedness, and violence. Grace, for all her kindness, is an enabler of Vet’s flaws. And Buddy speaks rebelliously, but by play’s end has not yet effectively rebelled. So what are we to make of this incompleteness?

Yet being frustrated by the messiness leads this reviewer at least to come to a rueful appreciation of Parks’ art. We really become involved with these deliberately partially-realized characters, and intoxicated with the skillfully under-sketched political allegory. Parks’ use of continuing, ever-mutating symbolism and motifs is dazzling. Afterwards, one wants to sit down with fellow-audience members and talk it through, it’s that absorbing. It’s no wonder Parks has won a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant among many other honors.

And Rapid Lemon has chosen an outstanding cast to send the show aloft. Walters’ facility with the angry side of Buddy has already been mentioned; he gives an almost-complete performance filled with brash energy. (The only missing piece is his failure to seem convincingly cowed when his father is bullying him.) Jess Rivera, I’m convinced, can do anything. Her performance channeling a feral child fighting over a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich was easily the funniest and most memorable thing about Strand Theater’s rendering of Paul Vogel’s And Baby Makes Seven in 2019. There’s a lot less comedy and a lot more pathos in Grace, but that same kind of willfulness. I don’t think I’ve seen Benny Pope onstage before, but the role of Vet clamors for a big man with a bully’s nose for other people’s weakness and a bully’s body for hurting them, and Pope, who is indeed a big man, sports a feral grin as he goes around delivering pain, demoralization, disappointment, and in a pinch, beat-downs. It’s hard to imagine anyone else doing the role better. I don’t think I was alone in my appreciation for this cast; the opening night audience displayed its enthusiasm for each of them about equally, during the curtain calls.

So by all means catch The Book of Grace. It may have its imperfections, but you’ll come away horrified, entertained, and eager to buttonhole someone else and talk about the play.

Full disclosures: Rapid Lemon Productions and its founder, Max Garner, gave me a start as a playwright with a short play I wrote, and Pierre Walters starred in a production of another play of mine last year. And I (along with the rest of the dramatists in the region) am obligated to Benny Pope in his capacity as one of the readers for the annual playwriting competition I administer for the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

The Book of Grace, by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Lauren Davis, presented by Rapid Lemon Productions through January 28, at The Strand Theater, 5426 Harford Rd, Baltimore, MD 21214. Tickets $20 at https://www.rapidlemon.com/2024 . Adult themes, adult language, and graphic violence.

Photo credit: Rapid Lemon Productions.



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