From the first seconds of Craig Wright’s Grace, you know the tale will end in heartbreak, madness and a murder-suicide bloodbath—even before learning that it takes place in Florida. In the stage equivalent of running film in reverse, the actors speak their lines backward, sentence by sentence, and retrace their blocking. At the end of the play, the same sequence will play forward, to grimly fatalistic effect. So it spoils nothing to say that evangelical Christian and aspiring hotelier Steve (Rudd) shoots his wife, Sara (Arrington), and next-door neighbor, Sam (Shannon), before turning the gun on himself. Forget about the body count, Wright seems to declare at the outset; pay attention to how these people got there—free will, or hand of fate?
Few American playwrights since Thornton Wilder have combined so much wry humor, formal invention and philosophical depth as Wright, who never met a dramatic scenario that he didn’t give a cosmic or spiritual spin. (His Recent Tragic Events was one of the most slyly trenchant plays written about September 11.) If the title Grace didn’t tip you off, the piece tracks four individuals (including Ed Asner’s atheist exterminator, who survived the Nazis) occupying various points on the faith spectrum. Sam lost his fiancée in a car accident that left his face disfigured and his spirit in worse shape. Steve believes that God will smile upon a shady business deal that involves Jesus-themed motels. And Sara, who relocated with her husband from Minnesota to the Sunshine State, finds her heart turning from chipper, deluded Steve to bitter but honest Sam. The human dimension of Wright’s play is touching, if not very original; but his writing is a skillful blend of bright, humorous dialogue and yearning questions about destiny and connection.
There’s much to enjoy in Dexter Bullard’s clear-eyed production, whose set pivots on a turntable in front of a bright blue sky. Shannon is harrowing and transfixing as always, a man-statue carved out of grief. In a role that could be seen as wispy, Arrington traces Sara’s itchy discontent. The only false note here (besides the ginned-up tragic finale) is Rudd. The epitome of sweet-tempered, best-friend menschitude, Rudd fails to convince as a guy whose rough past led him to fasten onto religious bromides with a white-knuckle grip. I would love to see Rudd prove himself in a meaty, serious role, but his affable angst in Grace left me unconverted.—David Cote
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