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BWW Reviews: LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE Explodes at Woolly Mammoth

In some ways Chad Beckim's Lights Rise on Grace features a familiar story. In other ways - especially when one considers the whole rather than the individual pieces - it does not. At the core and with all of the various elements considered, Lights Rise on Grace is a story about finding one's self, making sense of who we are, and figuring out where we belong and with whom in the midst of complications and unexpected circumstances. What sets Beckim's play apart from many others that deal with similar conundrums is how he skillfully develops and presents those challenging circumstances and complications that his characters have to face. Race plays a part as does socioeconomic status, and sexual identity. However, what we have is not an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of play that seeks to raise social consciousness about a myriad of issues, but ends up addressing none of them in a satisfactory way. Instead, cohesion and solid integration of ideas are among Beckim's strongest assets. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, strong direction by Company Member Michael John Garcés and tour-de-force acting performances from all three cast members bring out the best of Beckim's tightly written script.

Initially, Beckim presents us with your standard, but not-so-standard boy-meets-girl story. Grace (Jeena Yi) is a shy and sheltered Chinese American girl of very modest means. When Large (DeLance Minefee) talks to her for the first time in a high school hallway, she's a bit perplexed as to why he's even engaging her. Grace struggles to communicate with this gregarious and confident African American boy, someone who is so different from herself. When Grace begins to open up a bit more, the sexual connection the two have become obvious, but they both learn that having a relationship with one another will be far from easy. Crude, racial comments from members of their broader communities and judgement from their families indicate only a very remote chance that their budding, unexpected relationship will ever reach full, if any, acceptance.

Just as the relationship is gaining steam, Large has a physical altercation that lands him a multi-year stint in prison. In prison, he meets fellow inmate Riece (Ryan Barry). His experience in prison, and especially his complicated relationship with Riece, leaves him - to some extent - a different person upon his reentry back into society. While in prison, lingering questions of his sexual identity are pushed even more to the forefront.

While her love is incarcerated, Grace sets out on her own, apart from her unaccepting family. She's lonely and unaware of what actually happened to Large and where he is. She just knows he left her. So when Large reenters Grace's life following his release, mixed emotions and many questions bubble up to the surface about what happened to him, why, and whether a future together is possible. Their post-prison relationship faces a myriad of complications that only grow as their family size also grows. Honesty, particularly on Large's part, poses a challenge to his relationship with Grace. Riece serves as a stabilizing force for Grace, but even that support can only go so far. Will the connection that Grace and Large have be enough to make it through the challenges and have hope for the future? Both Large and Grace struggle with complex issues of identity (especially Large), how they fit together, and their place in the world and they're unlikely to just go away.

Beckim delivers this broader storyline in a structurally interesting way. Not all of the individual "path of discovery" stories he weaves into his play for this three characters are delivered as uninterrupted segments or in a completely linear fashion. While I did wish that each self-discovery story was given the same amount of attention - I thought Grace was short-changed in comparison to Large who undeniably has a broader set of identity issues to deal with - each of the stories are dealt with in more or less a satisfactory way when isolated from the others.

One notable shortcoming, however, is that the cultural/racial divide issues that are prominent in the beginning of the play receive less focus as time goes on in favor of the perhaps more "headline worthy" issues of sexual identity. As time moves forward, it rarely matters that Grace has a Chinese heritage while Large has an African one. The playwright may have intended this progression, but it's unclear. As there was no carry-through, I was left with the question of whether the specific race/cultural elements were even necessary to include in the first place and whether they could be replaced with some other attributes that make Grace and Large different from one another. Certainly, although Beckim is not the first playwright to tackle interracial relationships (or struggles with sexual identity and prison time, for that matter), I found it to be among the more interesting themes he considers. It's not often a play features that particular interracial dynamic.

At Woolly however, it proves fairly easy to concentrate more on what's good about Beckim's script - and to be sure there is a lot of it. Garcés brings out some extremely exceptional performances from talented cast. Yi, for example, allows us to see Grace's transformation in a very clear way. Minefee, as Large, is the definition of a conflicted individual and his layered performance is certainly noteworthy. Barry, as Riece, also delivers and acts as a steady grounding force in some of the more melodramatic scenes between our star-crossed lovers late in the performance. All three actors give emotionally charged, explosive performances when necessary. Yet, tender emotions capture the friendship and love between their characters amidst all of the chaotic uncertainty.

Luciana Stecconi's sparsely institutional and industrial set design proves most effective for the lengthy prison scenes, but also draws attention to the fact that the characters are not only physically trapped (in the case of Riece and Large) for a length of time, but also all face emotional and social traps. James Garver's sound design and Dan Covey's lighting design also draws attention to the physical and non-physical constraints and obstacles our characters face.

The end result is a most satisfying evening of theatre.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through April 26. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.

Photo Caption: (left to right) Ryan Barry, DeLance Minefee, Jeena Yi; By Stan Barouh

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