Friday, October 01, 2010

The Book of Grace

Thought provoking, well acted THE BOOK OF GRACE at CPT

Suzan-Lori Parks, whose THE BOOK OF GRACE is now on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre, is noted for her love of allegory and her sense that a play has to be about something other than what it seems.

On the surface Parks has constructed a family portrait which mirrors rage, revenge, power and betrayal. The play shows a young man returning home to South Texas to confront his father for the older man's misdeeds. As the drama proceeds it weaves the story of three people bound together, which erupts into a battle for personal survival.

Ms. Parks is seemingly looking at the American soul and dividing it into three compartments, represented by each of script's characters. The father, Vet, is the corrupt, defensive and cruelly oppressive patriarch. Grace, his young wife is the optimist who believes that all things can be worked out, by ignoring and not confronting the real issues. Buddy, the son, is the American rebel, the product of a troubled childhood and a misguided vision. At one point he identifies himself with terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to see the play on multiple levels. There is the father whose speeches echo the voices of scared white Christian males afraid of being disenfranchised because “their America” is being taken over by “aliens” (e.g., foreigners, homosexuals, women.) Vet states, “Sometimes the alien is right in your own home. And you've got to build a wall around it.” There are literal references to those who pass laws and man the fence meant to keep Mexican and other South and Central American “aliens” out of the US.

And, though the author, in a local radio interview stated that the play is not race-based, the casting of the local production opens up a different interpretation. Director Sheffia Randall Dooley cast a white father and a black son. Buddy often refers to his father as “The Man,” a term that was commonly used by negro slaves to refer to their white owners, and which has carried over into present day references. The history of master-slave relationships, when “bad things” are and were done to the oppressed minority, roll out in Parks' words.

Though a little long for a non-intermission sitting, Cleveland Public Theatre's production captivates. Dooley's directing is on-target, building the strong emotions when necessary. The cast is universally excellent. Young Rod Lawrence, a BW senior, who will soon leave the area for New York, appears to be Big Apple-ready. His bodily control and internal/external displays of angst were finely tuned. Charles Kartali is properly obnoxious as the maniacal Vet. He makes it easy for the audience to hate his character. Sally Groth correctly plays the Grace as a simple person, but not a simpleton. Her final scene is emotionally wrenching.

Trad Burns' scenic design, a three walled fence of wire and boards, encases the playing area resulting the necessary feeling of the inside versus the outside world. Unfortunately, his lighting design left dark spots on stage and in several scenes actually painted black lines on actors when they stood center stage.

Capsule judgement: CPT's THE BOOK OF GRACE is a thought provoking, well conceived production that challenges the audience and should encourage long discussions.