By Eve Speer
Theatre is a collaborative art. It requires artists of varying backgrounds, dogmas, and experience to come together to tell a story. It’s fitting that Utah Rep joined forces with Around the Globe Theatre to present Craig Wright’s play Grace.
The play takes place in two different apartments at the same time in Florida. Steve and Sara just moved from Minnesota to open a chain of Jesus-loving motels. Next door, their neighbor Sam is recovering from an accident that killed his fiancée. Two sets of lives unfold in front of us, occupying the same space. Through an elderly exterminator Karl, Steve and Sara learn about their neighbor Sam’s misfortune and soon their stories start to interweave. Steve and Sara, played by Johnny Hebda and Emilie Eileen Starr, are devout Christians who genuinely enjoy living their beliefs. In the first scene, they giddily thank God in a prayer that reveals both their faith and their dynamic as a couple. Karl, played by Jeffrey Owen, chooses a cynical life of disbelief because his father believed in God before and during the terrors of Nazi Germany, and now Karl sees his father’s beliefs as foolish. Sam, played by JayC Stoddard is a scientist at NASA who grew up Unitarian.
Craig Wright’s play covers a variety of themes. He tells the story of Grace—that magical manifestation of God’s love that cannot be explained away—using flawed characters who don’t allow themselves to experience present happiness because they’re too busy caught up in the mistakes of the past—or in the case of Steve—too caught up in the grace of his past. The play presents us with the idea that grace is sufficient for this day and in order to continue in God’s good graces, we need to trust in the music as it is playing now and not as we wish it played. At first I found Sara gratingly naïve, but as the play progressed, I was delighted with her ability to embrace the miracles as they unfolded. She saw things as they were. Her faith strengthened my faith and taught me to not be afraid of enjoying my present truth. Ms. Starr’s performance was enchanting.
I found Steve to be separated from himself. Mr. Hebda created a character that could never allow himself to accept grace beyond the miracles he had experienced years ago when he first came to know God. It just seemed like every overt action of faith was this need to hide the fact that he really hadn’t had a genuine experience with grace since that first converting experience. Watching him was like watching a man unable to just honestly be in the room.
Stoddard’s portrayal of Sam was perfect. It was unaffected and I was riveted as I watched his subtle performance.
Karl was stereotypically curmudgeonly, but it was inspiring to see Owen’s portrayal of Karl’s moment of grace. At the moment, the stage is filled with action—and each actor had a multitude of choices they could have overplayed. Instead, the action unfolded perfectly; each character occupying the same space and time, each reacting in their minds so differently to Karl’s miracle. I’m being purposely vague here because I want to talk about the experience of Wright’s play—without giving away your own experience as playgoers. Please forgive me, and just go and see the show for yourself! Anyone who loves the televisions shows Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara as much as I do should take time out to see the show. I enjoyed JC Carter’s direction. In the interest of writing an honest review—with no set changes—the blackouts should have been shorter. We’ve all done quick changes—it just felt long. He did a wonderful job in creating a world of the play where the actors were able to trust their material and trust their choices. An amateur will often over play every moment and undo the power of the scene. I appreciated that the actors trusted their choices.
Technically, things were pretty tip top. Because the play is set in modern-day, the costuming was very natural, realistic and believable. The set was a simple door and a wall with comfortable muted Browns, greens and pinks, reminiscent of any generic Florida apartment.
This show would probably be rated PG-13 for language, but the language is not gratuitous and there is some violence. One audience member would laugh every single time someone said the F word. That was far more distracting to me and took me out of the experience somewhat. But I want to stress that this is a remarkably affecting, touching show and really shouldn’t be missed. I was very pleased with the show’s message and the performances given and encourage everyone to go see Grace.
I love The Sugar Space as a theatrical venue. The simple black box theatre helps audiences to dive into the story, rather than be distracted by the space. I believe it lends itself to thought provoking storytelling. Parking is a breeze and it’s located just a block away from Dee’s Restaurant on 7th East and 2100 South—so if you want to go and enjoy some sweet potato fries with your friend afterwards, it’s pretty convenient. The play runs April 24-May 10th at The Sugar Space, located at 616 East Wilmington Avenue, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $12-$15. Visit www.utahrep.org for more information.