The concept of family has evolved quite a bit since the days of Leave it to Beaver. Somewhere within the course of The Simpsons’ infinite run, society has developed a taste for portrayals of dysfunctional, non-traditional families, albeit ones held together touchingly, maybe even sappily, by love.
One of the latest and greatest takes on the modern family is at the core of Chad Beckim’s Lights Rise on Grace, a play making its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth through the National New Play Network. The tale Beckim weaves is equal parts twisted and touching: It explores the lives of three young adults bound invisibly but inexorably by knots of race, sexuality, love, and pain. None of their lives are easy: Second-generation Chinese-American Grace (Jeena Yi), Caucasian Riece (Ryan Barry), and African-American Large (DeLance Minefee) all come from different but equally unforgiving backgrounds. They’re only able to survive through trusting in one another—even if that trust is painfully betrayed.
High school student Grace is fragile at first: She cringes and shrinks away from other people. Fellow student Large takes an interest and manages to coax her out of her shell with a little sweetness and a friendly swagger.
Soon after, Large lands in prison, where he finds himself as guarded, scared, and silent as Grace was when they met. His defenses are broken, roughly, by Riece; the meet-cute from the start of the play is repeated and reflected in a dark mirror. Riece now recites Large’s lines, tinged with masculine jocularity and a bit of menace; the cutesy meeting from before is transformed into something borderline sinister.
Repeated, inverted scenes like this occur throughout the play and act as guideposts that track how much has changed for the unlikely love triangle since the last time the lines were uttered. And everything is in a state of flux. In turns, Large, Riece, and Grace evolve from sweet and caring to cold and guarded, or from hurt and broken to triumphant and resilient. It’s an immense credit to each of the three actors—who also serve as a chorus of dozens of one-off characters that flesh out the world around them—that the three main characters feel easily identifiable, even as they grow and change.
Director Michael John Garcés’ canny choreography is also useful to keep track of the ever-shifting relationship. In one particularly stunning repeated scene, we see how Large is literally torn between his two lovers. One seductively, softly caresses him while the other claws and manhandles, causing Large to be wracked in agony or ecstasy or possibly both at once.
While the characters go through hell, the title of Lights Rise on Grace isn’t meant to be ironic (or at least, it’s meant to be equally ironic and sincere—just another of the play’s myriad contradictions). The show is dedicated to exploring love in all of its aspects—at its purest and kindest, at its most destructive and devastating, and at the times where the difference between those two extremes are a muddle. Ultimately, the trials these characters endure are a hyperbolic explosion of the quotidian struggles and successes of any relationship. Like love, Lights Rise on Grace hurts, but it’s impossible to not want to come back for more.
641 D St. NW. $20-$93.(202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.