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The early moments of Craig Wright’s tragicomic world premiere, Grace, play like a rewinding videotape, with a disquieting sense of genies being stuffed back into bottles as time marches backward. Two corpses rise from the beige carpet in a nondescript Florida condo to take their bullets, then wail their terror, then speak their last words to an agitated gunman who grows increasingly calm.
It’s an apt introduction to an alternately hilarious and rending evening that soon leaps back a couple of months to deconstruct time, space, faith, and Florida real estate as it examines the rocky marriage of born-again Christians Sara and Steve, and then work its way forward again to their violent end.
Steve (David Fendig) is a self-described “prayer warrior”—a salesman who, a few months before going on the wife- and neighbor-killing rampage we’ve just witnessed, was crowing to Sara that God had blessed him, by inspiring an investor to offer him twice what he needed for a real-estate deal. Steve interprets this as a sign of divine approval for his dream of founding a chain of “gospel hotels” equipped with both swimming pools and baptismal fonts. But Sara (Jennifer Mendenhall) greets the news coolly. She likes neither the name her husband proposes to give the hotels (“CROSSroads Inns”) nor the fact that he’s so busy, she barely sees him anymore. But then, she also doesn’t see the guy with the head bandages who’s sitting right next to her on her couch, or the one who’s spritzing the baseboards with bug spray.
She doesn’t see them (nor does Steve) because they’re not actually there. They’re in an identical condo next door that has been conflated with this one for a moment, for reasons best left to the author. Suffice it to say that NASA engineer Sam (Paul Morella), who lost his wife and half his face in a freak auto accident, and pest-control expert Karl (Michael Willis), who has childhood tales to tell of Nazi Germany, represent the secular side of the metaphysical divide.
Sam doesn’t want anything to do with his Jesus-championing neighbors, but Sara needs a friend, and Steve needs an investor, so the heavily bandaged, deeply grieving, and deliciously acerbic widower gets drawn into their orbit, protesting all the while that he’s a rocket scientist, not a Christian Scientist. Their various outlooks make for spirited arguments about whether God or sheer coincidence is ruling events—a debate made physical in a harrowing game of Russian roulette—before the plot wends its way to the corpse-strewn apartment of the opening scene.
Wright, who is both a seminary graduate and an Emmy-nominated screenwriter (for Six Feet Under), has a history of using domestic situations to get at big ideas. In Melissa Arctic, he transplanted The Winter’s Tale to upstate Minnesota and sent his characters ice-fishing; in Recent Tragic Events, he mixed dating rituals and sock puppets with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. So it’s no surprise to see him tackling matters of faith by plaguing characters not merely with crises of conscience, but also with inexplicable rashes and computer glitches.
Steve gets the rashes when he overreaches—which, as Fendig plays him, is pretty much every time he breathes. A hard-sell salesman, he can’t let himself consummate a conversation or a business deal without a fit of last-minute proselytizing, even when it’s to his distinct disadvantage. By evening’s midpoint, it’s easy to see how he’s gotten in way over his head—his cell phone buzzing with calls he can’t take, his upper lip sweating—and as his fingers start scraping the raw spots on his skin, he seems to fall apart, turning into a mass of anxieties and spiritual confusion.
As for Sam, his physical rawness—his face shredded in that accident—might appear to owe more to divine intervention than Steve’s, but Sam’s not buying that argument. He’s a geek who curses tech support rather than God when digital photos of his recently deceased wife start decomposing as rapidly as her body, losing pixels each time he looks at them. Beneath his fury and exasperation, Morella finds a vulnerability that’s pretty wrenching.
Mendenhall’s Sara is a soothing balm for both of these men, but her gentleness costs her dearly. Her quivering anger can be sublimely funny as she waits for Sam to answer the phone so she can tell him very evenly and caringly that he’s been a shit and she wishes he’d stop. But she can also catch you up short with an unexpected word in the middle of a line that didn’t seem to be going anywhere special until she interrupted it with the tiniest of sighs. And toward evening’s end, she turns an author-mandated and quite literal laying-on of hands into an expression of tenderness so fierce, it breaks your heart. Wright crafted the part of Sara with Mendenhall in mind, and it’s hard to imagine a more delicate, emotionally resonant performance.
Also terrific, as always, is Willis, whose decidedly peppery salt of the earth pops in occasionally with a caustic glare guaranteed to stop a proselytizer in his tracks, just as surely as his canister of pesticide stops termites.
Wright’s structural tricks get a tad baroque at times—that early murder-in-reverse moment is echoed by shorter rewinds in other scenes, and the author dots the evening with overlapping-apartment sequences. Still, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s temporary home at the Warehouse Theater, the play’s events are never hard to follow. Chalk that up partly to the quality of the writing, partly to Michael John Garcés’ clever staging, which coaxes exuberantly physical performances from his actors—wait ’til you see the crucifixion-by-rash he’s arranged for Fendig—without ever shortchanging the play’s arguments.
Wright’s insistence on expressing complicated notions whole occasionally leads him to write speeches rather than dialogue, and in Grace, he pitches quite a few monster soliloquies at the audience. Some are blisteringly funny, others eloquently plain-spoken (“There is this big music I hear in things”), but Garcés finds ways for the cast to bat them all heavenward, not least the ones that disparage the very notion of heaven. “There is no God!” bellows a character near evening’s end, to which even a hardened agnostic like me pretty much has to respond, “Ah, but there is Grace.”CP