Hello and thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I am Robert A. Easton (many people call me Bob), and I am one of the producers for the upcoming Utah Rep / ATG Theatre Company co-production of the play “Grace.” I have also volunteered to serve as dramaturg for the production.
This week’s blog is about the talented cast we have assembled for “Grace” and the story of how they each came to be part of the show.
“Grace” was written by award-winning playwright Craig Wright, about a young Christian married couple from Minnesota who move to Florida looking to open a chain of gospel-themed hotels, only to find the cruelness of the business world too much for them. Their once-strong marriage begins to break down as Sarah (the wife) grows more distant from Steve (the husband) and closer to their neighbor, Sam, who has recently suffered terrible injuries that, among other horrible things, left one half of his face grossly and permanently disfigured. The fourth and final member of the show’s cast is Karl, an 84-year-old German who decades ago survived the horrors of World War II, and who now lives in Florida, working as an exterminator.
It would be wrong to begin this blog without writing about anyone other than Johnny Hebda, who, in addition to being the founder of Utah Rep and executive producer for “Grace,” will also be playing the role of Steve. Hebda first saw “Grace” on Broadway back in 2012, and he made it his personal goal to one day bring the show to Utah, where it has never before been produced. He had his eye on playing the role of Steve, but when he first approached JC Carter about directing “Grace” and sent him a copy of the show to read over, he told Carter he wanted to act in the show but asked him to decide in his own mind which role he’d be best for. As soon as JC read the script, it was obvious to him who Hebda should play. He also had other actors in mind for the other three roles as well.
“When Johnny brought me this show two years ago, I knew I would cast him and JayC Stoddard as Steve and Sam, respectively,” said Carter about casting the show. “I also knew of an actor I thought would make a great Karl. At that point, it seemed silly to hold auditions if I was just auditioning for the role of Sara, so I started my talent search. Early on, I was interested in an actress that had performed for Utah Rep a couple of times, and approached her. She had trepidations about taking the role, but after she read the script, she was on board.”
At that point it seemed the show was cast, but in actuality, with just Hebda and Stoddard fully committed, only half the roles were filled.
“The problem we had was scheduling the play,” explained Carter regarding the unexpected troubles he had casting the four person show. “The actors I wanted for Karl and for Sara had very narrow windows when they could work for me, but we had difficulties setting the date. Once we finally settled on April 25 to May 10 that meant I unfortunately lost my picks for Karl and Sara. Both of which, to their credit, made an effort to work out their schedules, but it was not meant to be. My next two calls to actresses to play Sara were for naught, and it seemed like every actor in the right age group for Karl was busy.”
There is no shortage of talented, young actresses in Utah, but for some reason it seemed nearly impossible to find one who was right for the show. It was with only a week before our first read-through rehearsal that Carter, acting on a suggestion from Hebda who had seen an amazingly talented actress in a recent Salt Lake area production of “Closer,” finally found the right person for the role.
“I had never met Emilie Starr, and I was unable to see her perform in ‘Closer’ for Wasatch Theatre last fall, so she was an unknown (to me),” admits Carter, “but after one phone conversation, I knew I had found the right actress, and after an adjustment to our rehearsal schedule, she was all ours.”
The even greater obstacle in casting “Grace” was finding a suitable Karl, for unlike younger actresses, older actors can be incredibly difficult to find in this area. At least half a dozen actors in the right age range were suggested and contacted, but frustratingly none of them were able to commit to “Grace,” all of them being already committed to other projects during the same period of time the show was scheduled to run. Finally, Carter decided to hold auditions for the role of Karl, and would even let actors as young as their late 40s audition for the role, knowing he could always, with the help of Kelly Donahue, his brilliant make-up artist, age them up to appear older if necessary. This was how Jeffrey Owen, not yet 50 at the time he auditioned, came to be part of the cast.
“I had worked with Jeff a couple of times and had wanted to get him in one of my shows,” says Carter. “When he said he’d be interested in reading for Karl, I was thrilled. Sure, he’s not the age Karl is supposed to be, but I already had Kelly on my team, and I know Jeff is a great actor who will work hard to develop the right physicality and vocalizations to make us believe he’s 35 years older than he actually is, so I know he will be great.”
I have been able to sit in on a few rehearsals so far, and believe me when I tell you that the cast we have for this show is first rate. They are so much fun to watch, and each of them brings a lot of energy and insight to the rehearsal process.
To once more quote our fearless director, Carter, “Each actor brings a unique personality and perspective to their characters, and as they’re discovering, they are a lot like their characters in many ways.”
JayC Stoddard, an actor I’ve worked with several times since Carter and I cast him to play the title character in an ATG production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” back in 2008, and would gladly work with on every show I do if possible, had this to say about his experience working on “Grace”: “This particular collaboration, so far, has been such a wonderful experience. I’ve been doing this whole acting thing for something around 35 years now. I love that I can still learn from, gain experience, and enjoy the passion as much now as I ever have.”
“It’s been interesting coming into the rehearsal process about a week or so later than the rest of the cast,” says Owen, who is playing the role of Karl. “Prior to joining the production, I wasn’t that familiar with Craig Wright’s ‘Grace.’ After reading the play for the first time, my first impression was quite cold. I wasn’t sure if I would like working in this production, but after reading it several times and experiencing the rehearsal process, I became fascinated with the lives of these people as they struggle with many facets of faith and the meaning of their lives. There is a prevailing theme throughout the play, mainly a crisis of faith, whether it’s faith in God, marriage, fidelity, the human race, even technology and science.”
Owen finds it ironic that Karl works as an exterminator since he abhors the memory of how the Nazis in his native home of Hamburg, Germany, sought to exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. He goes on to examine the course his character takes throughout the play, saying, “Despite what has happened, I think Karl’s faith in the human race is reconciled after he has a chance meeting with someone special from his past. The real question is: Did a higher power have any part to play in this meeting? If so, has it come too late in his life to make a difference?”
About how much he enjoys working with the rest of the cast, Owen says, “All of them have strong connections to their characters. I love how everybody is invested in the process. We even maintain a great sense of humor, despite the serious subject matter of the play. Our director has great insights on the show and the characters. It’s going to be very interesting to see how theatergoers will react to this production. I hope it makes them ask questions regarding their own faith, not only in God, but in themselves and each other.”
“I think ‘Grace’ is an extremely well-written drama with shining moments of comedy,” said Emilie Starr, who plays Sarah, about the show. “It is very relevant here because of the religious background of our state. ‘Grace’ shows the two extremes that can happen by relying solely on faith, or anything for that matter. Each character does a full 180 degrees throughout the course of the show, from being saved and gaining love to losing it. It also shows the dramatic affect religion or lack thereof can have on our lives.”
She adds, “People ask and expect forgiveness from God all their lives but then don’t forgive God when bad things happen to them. Forgiveness must go both ways.”
And quoting from the play itself, she says, “Please forgive me for all the ways I have failed you, and I will forgive you for all the ways you have failed me.”
“Grace” opens April 25 and closes May 10. It will be performed at the Sugar Space in Salt Lake City and is a Utah premiere. Tickets for the show are now on sale. We hope to see you there and hope you enjoy the show.
Join us online next Tuesday for our next blog.