Craig Wright’s new play, Grace, starts with a big bang that we are soon to understand is meant in many ways to emulate the Big Bang. The play opens with its final scene and ends where it began, deliberately setting the tone for this interplay between humanity and the Cosmos. Where did things start and where do they end?
Married evangelical Christian couple Steve and Sara (Paul Rudd and Kate Arrington) have moved to Florida to realize Steve’s dream of opening a chain of gospel-themed hotels that are being funded by the mysterious Zurich-based Mr. Himmelman to the tune of $9m. They move into a complex next door to NASA scientist Sam (Michael Shannon), who has become somewhat reclusive since a tragic car accident left his girlfriend dead and half his face on the highway.
Their lives become inextricably linked (are all of ours?), and Beowulf Borritt’s intermingled set, which doubles as both apartments, accentuates this. The characters navigate the living room furniture, at the same time enacting their own domestic scenes while avoiding each other, like atoms in the Cosmos. Until, that is, they collide and all matter of mess erupts.
The play, and Steve’s background, is based on playwright Craig Wright’s own story. His mother died when he was seven, and seven years later he left his much remarried Father and moved to Minnesota, where he became an evangelical Christian. Whereas Steve was called to Florida, however, Wright was called to Hollywood to write for Six Feet Under, Brothers and Sisters and Dirty Sexy Money. It’s clear that Wright’s objective is to make you question whose idea of God is correct or at least the most reasonable.
Is it Steve’s naïve and irrational view, proselytizing at every opportunity about how God can be seen even in the most horrific of circumstances? Or is it in his wife’s more balanced and honest view? At Bible camp she didn’t really relate or know what she was looking for, but she found a faith which though driven by God also recognizes and includes her responsibility and accountability for her actions.
Perhaps it’s Sam’s, whose empirical nature bases belief and faith on fact and science? Or could it be that of the play’s fourth character, Karl (Ed Asner), a German immigrant who believes in nothing? He refers to Steve and Sara as ‘Jesus freaks,’ informing them that Jesus and God don’t exist, which he knows to be true because his wife is dying of cancer and he witnessed awful horrors as a child during World War II, including his own forced betrayal and subsequent rape of a Jewish girl his family had taken in.
All these faiths are put to the test. Karl reunites with the girl he betrayed, and her forgiveness causes him to believe in ‘something.’ Sara and Steve cannot ignore their love for each other and put it down to part of The Plan, whether that be divined by God or the Universe (should you separate the two). Steve, ultimately, faces the toughest test and learns the hardest lesson in that his faith is naïve and circumstantial. He cannot accept that his wife and neighbor’s union is part of God’s plan. There is a hole in his belief, and so he puts bullet holes in everyone else.
It’s interesting stuff, but ultimately, rather than pondering who has the most relatable idea of God, you are left wondering, ‘Who cares?’ Herein, lies the problem with Grace: as a study of faith as deciphered by the staunchly religious it suddenly reveals itself as an overwhelming bombardment of biblical parallels, ironies and symbolism.
Steve’s questioning of Mr. Himmelman’s unforthcoming financial provisions, thrice, is his Garden of Gethsemene scene where he screams, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ (by the way, Himmel is German for Heaven). Sara finds herself falling out of love with her husband, who develops a skin condition (from the toxic chemicals sprayed in the apartment) and falls in love with a man who already has his own disfigurement. Karl, the War refugee and Nazi survivor, is the Complex’s exterminator.
Poignant changes of scene – usually played out and then reversed like a film played backward, punctuated by flashes of light and muted bangs mirroring the Big Bang — punctuate the fact that even if you do go back you still end up in the same place. The beautiful backdrop is an oval depiction of the sky which moves from day to night in turn representing Steve’s and Sam’s views becomes a window to God and Heaven (or the view from the deck of the SS Enterprise). And it goes on.
While the writing is fluid and expert the subject matter isn’t as intellectual as it would like to believe and the constant references and dramatics only serve to highlight this. What’s more, the characters therein feel more like caricatures, with Asner perhaps being the most developed.
Director Dexter Bullard does a fine job, but then he does have considerably adept thespians to work with. There is something quite awe-inspiring about watching actors who have really honed their craft and their awareness of their instrument to the point of true creation and projection of a character for 100 minutes. Rudd, Arrington and Shannon are truly sublime in their mechanics.
Ultimately, no conclusions are really drawn here except that religion is always an easy topic to choose for debate and dissection but faith perhaps less so.