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'The Book of Grace' Is a Worthy Tome

The Book of Grace

By Suzan-Lori Parks, Directed by David Wheeler; Assistant Director, Lewis Wheeler; Set Design, Eric D. Diaz; Lighting Design, Kenneth Helvig; Sound Design, David Wilson; Costume Design, Tristan Scott Barton Raines; Projection Designer, Jason Weber; Properties Designer, Liz Panneton; Production Stage Manager, Joseph Thomas; Assistant Stage Managers, Madeleine Laupheimer & Andrew Remillard

CAST: Steven Barkhimer (Vet), Frances Idlebrook (Grace), Jesse Tolbert (Buddy)

Performances through May 7 by Company One at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts; Box Office 617-933-8600 or

The Book of Grace, a book title within the play of the same name, strives to be about the evidence of good things in life. When the eternally optimistic Grace reads from her work in progress, with bated breath and a glint in her eye, she is so good and genuine, you just know that if Peter Pan existed, he'd sprinkle fairy dust on her and give her the power to fly. And in an ideal world, she'd use that power to fly as fast and far away from husband and home as she could imagine. But Suzan-Lori Parks' play The Book of Grace is about boundaries and the limitations of reality that bring dreams and wishes crashing to the ground, no matter how many happy stories you clip out of the newspaper.

Company One collaborates with acclaimed Director David Wheeler to present Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Parks' intense drama about three damaged people struggling to survive in the best way they know how, whether that means pushing someone else under water to catch a gulp of air for themselves or finding solace in mundane daily happenings. Vet (Steve Barkhimer) is a border patrol officer in South Texas obsessed with enforcing boundaries to contain himself and maintain his way of life. Grace (Frances Idlebrook) is his second wife, a waitress in a diner who longs for wisdom and a better life. Vet's estranged son Buddy (Jesse Tolbert) comes to visit for the first time in fifteen years, hoping that his father is a changed man in order to make reconciliation possible. However, Buddy's entry into the mix creates an explosive, if not unexpected, chemical reaction with far-reaching consequences.  

Wheeler and his cast do an outstanding job of laying an ominous foundation for the story during a prologue when the three actors stand apart in individual spotlights and each voices a monologue that establishes their character. Buddy's hurt and anger stem from his father's unspeakable acts, committed long ago, for which he now demands an apology or reparation. Proclaiming that he is embracing his chance at a fresh start, Vet believes himself to be "on the good foot" as he serves his country on the front line of "us against them." Situated on the stage between the two men, Grace is an anomaly, her light and airy demeanor a stark contrast to their darkness.  

Sporting a brush cut, a side arm, and a faraway look in his eyes, Barkhimer ranges between creepy and menacing in a controlled performance that corresponds with Vet's vaunted containment. This is a man whose little world is his oyster and who enjoys the cat-and-mouse games he plays with encroaching aliens, his wife, and his son. Throughout, he wears a look of mistrust and gives off a vibe of a hair-trigger temper. When Vet's authority and power is challenged in actuality or in his own mind, Barkhimer realistically portrays his decompensation and inner rage with nearly imperceptible shifts in his body language and facial expressions, culminating in one swift act of violence.

Jesse Tolbert lets Buddy's emotions simmer at a low temperature in the first act as he assesses the lay of the land in his father's home. He and Grace share a special, secret relationship that gives him reason to be jumpy around Vet, but warm and less defended around her. As Buddy approaches his decisive moment, Tolbert gets stronger and more self-assured in act two. When he sits before his video camera to deliver his manifesto, his monologue builds like a crescendo in a symphony, his long-suppressed feelings spilling over the edge of a roiling pot.

Above and beyond giving her name to the play, Grace provides the heart of the story and the family depicted.  Frances Idlebrook is a revelation, wearing her heart on her sleeve and Grace's deepest emotions on her face. She can go from exuberant joy to a show of terror in an instant, a sudden shadow passing over her features as she becomes aware of imminent danger. Grace's story arc takes her from optimistic Pollyanna to peacemaker to endangered species and Idlebrook is equipped for the journey. Your heart will ache for her before all is said and done.

That Parks succeeds in layering the plight of this family atop the divisive drama playing out in the nation is evidence of her writing acumen. When Vet speaks in glorified terms about the border fence and containment, his paranoia shows through to let us know that he is also talking about keeping intruders out of his personal business. The difficulty he has in preparing a speech that he will deliver when he receives a medal for single-handedly apprehending a truckload of aliens attempting to breach the border is to camouflage his delusional, fascist underpinnings under the guise of red-blooded patriot. Buddy encapsulates the aimless returning war vet, expert in combat skills that have no outlet in the tight job market, and searching for people who will take him as he is and a place that feels like home. In both name and personality, Grace is the indomitable American spirit and the Statue of Liberty, holding high the flame of enlightenment against hurricane-force winds of bluster.

Set designer Eric D. Diaz continuously reminds us of the boundary issues at the forefront of The Book of Grace by projecting a visual of a barbed wire-topped chain link fence as a looming backdrop to Vet and Grace's modest home. Kenneth Helvig's lighting design marks the passage of time with warm slants of late afternoon light and purple hues of sunset. Sound designer David Wilson employs phrases of melancholy guitar music to accompany scene transitions. Tristan Scott Barton Raines is most effective in his costume designs for Grace, reflecting the drudgery of her existence in her gray waitress uniform and the fading outfits she wears around the house. The brilliant red dress that she longs for, but does not dare to buy, would bring the only color to her wardrobe and her life.

The Book of Grace is riveting. At the end, the audience seemed stunned and needed a moment to collect itself before applauding. As is typical of Company One productions, this play is provocative and not always easy to watch or to digest, but it will make you think and feel. It fires on all cylinders with astute writing, clear-minded direction, and fully-realized performances. The Book of Grace is evidence of good things in life.

Photo credit: Liza Voll (Frances Idlebrook, Jesse Tolbert, Steven Barkhimer)


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