Grace, an American play, opens and closes with a gunshot. Set in Florida, its obsession with gun culture and radical, commodified Christianity seems to mark it as American in so many of the ways that Canadians find offensive and that allow us so often to feel superior. Yet the details of its story, its interesting dramaturgical elements, intense performances, and sharp production values combine to create an almost entirely compelling evening of theatre.
Steve and Sara are an evangelical couple from Minnesota who have come to Florida where they hope to make a killing with his hotel renovation business (cleverly called Son Rise Hotels). They praise God when Steve appears to clinch a multi-million dollar business deal with a mysterious German investor. Steve, a self-proclaimed “prayer warrior,” has even bigger plans: a whole chain of Gospel Hotels for Christian travelers. Its slogan: “Where would Jesus stay?”
Most of us in the Canadian audience understand that this kind of nutbar self-serving pseudo-religiosity is what passes for normal in much of the United States. Steve’s credibility is further enhanced by Craig Erickson’s total commitment to the character. Alexa Devine is equally excellent as Sara, just as sincere in her religious embrace but a little hesitant to push it as far as Steve does. Both actors do a great job of showing us the barely suppressed panic beneath their characters’ surfaces.
Whereas Steve’s perverse notions of grace are transparently hollow, other less conventional but more essential versions are introduced into the play by Sam (Kerry van der Griend) in the neighbouring apartment, who has suffered Job-like trials, and Karl the pest exterminator (the always excellent Duncan Fraser), who appears at the beginning and end of the play as the bearer of a) comic relief, b) the inevitable Holocaust theme, and c) the necessary miracle.
Van der Griend is spectacularly good. As a man whose life has been destroyed, he exists in a constant state of rage. But he finds salvation in the simplicity of a love that turns out to be the last straw for Steve. No, I’m not going to give away the key details of the plot.
Wright breaks through his play’s naturalistic frame by writing scenes that rewind and play again, and others that obviously take place in separate apartments yet put the characters together on the same set. The effect of these devices is intentionally unsettling, preparing us for the spiritually unsettling messages the play means to send. Angela Konrad’s sure-handed direction and the effective incidental music of sound designer Dan Amos help make almost everything work.
The last half of the second act still felt stagy to me: overwrought, laid on too heavily, too melodramatically, in what I call the CSI style so endemic to American drama—though, granted, without the pat TV ending. Ultimately, the play’s lessons about grace and true faith remain culturally specific.