There’s something strangely satisfying about the way in which Craig Wright dissects all of the hows and whys of the universe. From his critical examination of free will versus determinism in Recent Tragic Events to his work on acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under, the immensely talented writer never fails to dig beneath the cortex and produce intellectually rich, provocative scripts that stimulate and challenge audiences with his refined brand of gridlock, cerebral theater.Â Â Â
Equal parts philosopher, theologian and dramatist, Wright works his magic in Grace, a new piece commissioned by Woolly Mammoth that travels underneath the steely optimism of organized religion to uncover personal faith and hypocrisy at a surprisingly intimate level. It’s a sentiment that perhaps Linda Richman could have expressed best: The Christian Right is neither Christian nor right. Discuss.
This is exactly what Grace attempts to offer — the notion that maybe, just maybe, God’s amazing grace isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Resisting the temptation to exhort the values of Christianity with a lemmings-over-the-cliff analogy, Wright moves beyond a simple parody of fire-and-brimstone, Bible-thumping holy rollers to focus on the virtues of scientific truths about time and space. His fascination with how religion lends depth and meaning to both is a malleable platform on which Wright balances his brittle story.
Through a series of overlapping vignettes featuring a married couple and their emotionally and physically scarred neighbor, Wright’s power-packed plot begins with a bizarre opening scene reversing both time and space. The course of events leading to his tragic conclusion is slowly, intricately revealed over two tense hours of heavy dialogue and consequential actions.
Steve and Sara are transplanted from small-town Minnesota to South Florida in hopes of closing a mega-bucks hotel development deal. While Steve is busy signing off on million-dollar contracts for “Sonrise ” Hotels, he dreams of opening his own chain of “Crossroads Inns, ” Gospel-based hotels complete with a sanctuary and baptismal pool. His advertising ploy? “Where would Jesus stay? ”
After convincing his spiritually-bankrupt neighbor to get in on the deal early, Steve’s sure-footed life quickly crumbles in a chain of distressing events leading to a harrowing climax.
It isn’t the stuff for intellectually numb, frozen-brained America. Wright never appeals to a least-common-denominator formula, and the result is a powerful, scorching drama that chips away at theology and the essence of spiritual belief.
There is beauty in chaos, and no one delivers a better sense of Wright’s dark comedy and commotion than David Fendig, positively manic as the clueless Jesus freak who frequently expresses disbelief with an irrepressible exclamation of “Dog! ” Woolly veteran Jennifer Mendenhall also presents an energetic performance as Sara, bouncing back and forth between condos in a whirlwind of Christian confusion. Michael Willis is divinely cast as Karl, an enlightened exterminator who survived Nazi Germany. And Paul Morella is crushing as Sam, the disenchanted neighbor who has survived a horrible tragedy only to relive another round of trauma.
Technically, Grace is a virtual dream, accompanied by weird sounds and noises from Neil McFadden with original haunting music by Cristian Amigo. Lisa L. Ogonowski’s evocative lighting is displayed upon another visually satisfying interior set designed by James Kronzer, whose impressive body of work this season grows more and more elaborate — but no less creative — with each project.
Everything lost is found — and lost again — as Wright’s Christian soldiers contemplate the universal lessons of karma and redemption in a world with no easy answers. Although it isn’t a perfect script, with Wright taking risky dips into exotic and familiar territory at the same time, Grace is one of the best new plays produced this year. Even when no simple solutions are offered and the road gets narrow and bumpy, with Wright at the helm, the journey is always worthwhile.
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