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Grace Under Fire
Next Act's "Grace" and Renaissance Theatreworks' "The Road to Mecca."

Linda Stephens, Bri Sudia and Jonathan Gillard Daly in "The Road to Mecca."


If you remember the HBO series Six Feet Under, you might know Craig Wright (he wrote a half-dozen of the show’s episodes). And you might know what to expect from a play like Grace, which opened last weekend at the Next Act Theatre. Like the cable series about a family-run funeral home, Wright’s plays explore big-ticket issues through highly dramatic character clashes. In Grace, a 2004 play that just had a respectable run on Broadway, the title says a lot. Where in the world—today’s polarized, often unfathomable world—do we find “grace”?

As the play starts, one of Wright’s four characters has definitely found it. Christian businessman Steve (Rick Pendzich) has just hooked multi-million dollar investor to help him start a chain of Evangelical-themed hotels. In fact, he’s getting millions more than he needed. Grace received.

But for his neighbor, NASA scientist Sam (Jonathan Wainwright)—well, not so much. He’s recovering from a car accident that killed his fiancé and left him horribly scarred. And his cherished photos of the couple’s recent trip to Italy have mysteriously started to disappear from his hard drive. When we meet him, he’s in the midst of an endless tech-support phone call, about as far from a State of Grace as you can get.

Thus, the polarities take shape right away: Science vs. faith, triumph vs. tragedy. In fact, Wright keeps the stakes high with enough biblical allusions to fill a sequel to the Book of Revelations. There’s an ersatz plague (a mysterious rash), stories of innocents slaughtered, and even a short-lived deus ex machina.

Things start to happen when the neighbors lives become intertwined, but Wright also ingeniously makes them overlap from the start by representing their separate, identical apartments as the same space onstage (perhaps a sly comment on the banal interchangeability of Florida architecture). And he plays with time, as well. Grace begins by showing what might be its tragic conclusion, but it’s shown in reverse. There are  rewinds and forwards the action back and forth in other parts of the play. It’s like a variation of Greek Tragic “fate” for the remote-control era.

Director David Cescarini helps his actors navigate the Grace’s alternating moments of drive and calm. Pendzich plays Steve with broad, innocent energy. Wainwright allows Sam’s existential snarl to soften just at the right moment, a touching scene with Steve’s wife Sara, played with lovely understatement by Libby Amato. And John Kishline strikes just the right blend of stubbornness and humor, playing a pest control visitor with a powerful story to tell.

There is ultimately something schematic about Wright’s play, as if the playwright is more interested in shuffling around ideas than letting them live through real human experience. But the ideas are provocative, and Grace will leave you with plenty to talk about.

* * *

“Grace” of a sort is also at the center of Athol Fugard’s 1984 masterpiece The Road to Mecca, which opened this weekend at Renaissance Theatreworks. Comparing Mecca to Grace is a bit unfair, since Fugard is one of our great living dramatists. But the differences say a lot about the craft of playwriting in the contemporary theater.

The Road to Mecca tells the story of the eccentric Miss Helen, who lives in a small town in The Karoo, an isolated and desolate region in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Since the death of her husband 15 years ago, Miss Helen has devoted her life to making things. Large cement sculptures surround her house, which is decorated with mirrors, candles and owls. She is based on a real woman, Helen Martins, who lived near Fugard for a time. And she will remind many Milwaukeeans of Mary Nohl, the “outsider artist” who created a similar world in and around her Fox Point home.

But to say Mecca tells Miss Helen’s story isn’t quite right, because Fugard doesn’t move through any A-to-B plot as much as envelope us in Miss Helen’s world and consciousness. While the play is ostensibly about the conflict between Helen and her surrounding neighbors—the stiff, Dutch Reformed community of New Bethesda—we barely hear about them through most of the play’s first act. Instead, we get to know Helen through the eyes of Elsa, a young schoolteacher who is an acolyte of sorts, who has driven for hours just to spend an evening with her.

As written—and as acted by Bri Sudia (Elsa) and Linda Stephens (Helen)—this first hour is as full and beautiful piece of theatrical portraiture as you are likely to see. Sudia lets Elsa’s tightly wound personality drive her character. She’s a teacher, angry at the South African system and the toll it takes on her world and the people surrounding her. And though her character spends a considerable time venting her frustrations, you can see what draws her to Helen’s self-made, aesthetic and isolated world. Part of Stephens accomplished work is rooted in simple and pure presence. I’m not sure whether Fugard ever met the real Helen Martins, but his writing—and Stephens radiant performance—captures the frailty and fear of a woman who is facing the end of a life’s chapter. And it does so with a fearless intimacy that Stephens exploits to the fullest.

When Rev. Marius Byleveld appears in the second act (played with a devilish understatement by Jonathan Gillard Daly), watch the way Stephens fidgets nervously in the face of his matter-of-fact authority. The play has been building toward this conflict for almost two hours, and by now, Miss Helen’s character and spirit has become so palpable that it is excruciating to watch her waffle under Marius’s effort to move her to an “old age home.” And when she finally delivers the play’s climactic speech, a gorgeous aria to the power and frailty of the creative spirit, the time we’ve spent with all the characters pays off beautifully.

Suzan Fete orchestrates these performances with great sensitivity, and helps create Helen’s world with a keen eye and sense of balance. The production’s magical look—Rick Graham’s lighting and Lisa Schlenker’s set—are as essential to Miss Helen’s world as is Stephens’ glorious performance. Like every piece of great theater, it’s all of a piece, touched by a magic—a grace—of its own.





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