|Karen Carpenter (seated) with Wendy Overly as atheist Grace Friedman in ''Grace'' at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, R.I. (Peter Goldberg)|
Passion and intelligence carry 'Grace'
PAWTUCKET, R.I. - Dogmatic in her arguments, ferocious in her certainties, British professor Grace Friedman is a kind of fundamentalist atheist - or "naturalist," the term she prefers. Her son, Tom, has recently infuriated her by leaving a career in law to become an Anglican priest, yet he is as tentative and questing in his faith as his mother is anchored in her refusal of it.
Together, they form the passionate, intelligent center of "Grace," a one-act play by Mick Gordon and A.C. Grayling that's as much a heartbreaking family drama as it is a heady argument over faith and reason. In staging the play's regional premiere with finesse and verve, Tony Estrella once again demonstrates why his company, the Gamm Theatre, is a vital player on the New England stage.
Gamm regular Wendy Overly plays Grace with a blend of thundering intensity and wry wit that makes her appealing as well as exasperating; she's incapable, at least at first, of ever allowing the possibility that she might be mistaken, but there's a warmth in her bluster that makes it endurable, for her family as well as for us. Kyle Blanchette's Tom is, almost of necessity, a quieter fighter, yet we come to see that he has his own kind of strength.
The two of them are balanced and mediated in their battles by the (relative) moderates who love them. Jim O'Brien plays Grace's husband, Tony, with a sometimes uncertain accent but an unfailing pragmatism and good humor; he doesn't so much refuse to take sides as wish that there weren't such sharply divided sides to take. And Karen Carpenter gives Tom's girlfriend, Ruth, a calm intelligence and inner fire that prove her a worthy partner both for him and, in later struggles, for Grace.
But it's Grace, with her just-symbolic-enough name, who's the real focus here, of the action and of the attentions of her two authors, one a London playwright and director and the other a professor of philosophy at the University of London. The first scene shows Grace in a laboratory, donning a bright yellow helmet that will stimulate certain parts of her brain in an attempt to produce a religious experience. Grace's experiment with the "God helmet," as its researchers call it, is a funny and apt way of introducing the play's basic question: Is everything, including faith, reducible to natural explanations, or is there something beyond the world we can see?
After wearing it briefly, Grace insists that the helmet "didn't really work on me." But as we come to realize, and as hinted by a program note on the play's setting - "in the present and in memories of the recent past" - much of what we see in the next 90 minutes is, in fact, what Grace sees inside that helmet, or more precisely inside her own head.
Estrella handles the transitions between present and past, action and memory, with clarity and subtlety: Labels for "Grace's living room" or "a churchyard" are projected on David T. Howard's otherwise nearly bare, sepia-toned set, and Matthew Terry's lighting dims or brightens or shifts in tone. Like the play itself, the direction doesn't push too hard; it lays out the story and the arguments, then trusts us to be smart enough to make sense of it for ourselves.
Even the shocking event at the heart of the story is not overplayed. It's a tragedy, and one that ripples through everything that comes before and after it, but both the event itself (which we experience only through the other characters' reactions, not directly) and its effects feel at once plausible and profound. At their most wrenching and extreme, the emotions here are fully earned.
So, too, is the praise the Gamm deserves for continuing to stage challenging, exciting, and artistically excellent work in these difficult times.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.