There is not much of a story to Lights Rise on Grace, but what there is is told beautifully, and with – it must be said – grace. It begins like Romeo and Juliet, (an observation a character also makes): Large (DeLance Minefee), an African-American teenager, and Grace (Jeena Yi), a young woman of Chinese origin, fall in love. Their families are outraged and disgusted. Large’s boozehound father (Ryan Barry) bellows his contempt, and his hideous brother (Yi) makes threats. Grace’s rigid and bigoted parents (Barry and Minefee) heap shame and threats on her.
When Grace’s parents try to force her into an arranged marriage, she – unlike Juliet – rejects their plans and accepts banishment. Large, like Romeo, undertakes an act of violence, with a six-year prison stretch as a consequence.
But Grace and Large, unmoored from the social universe of their Veronian predecessors, follow their own paths, with greatly different consequences. Large, in prison, earns the friendship and protection of Riece (Barry), and discovers something about his own nature that had hitherto been suppressed. Both of these have an enormous impact on his relationship with Grace when he returns.
Having told you some of what the story is, I should caution you about what it is not. It is not a sexy ménage á trois; such sex as is in it is about pain as much as it is about pleasure. Nor is it a screed about the challenges which prisoners face upon their release, although it does deal with that issue in a forthright way. It is, instead, about real people struggling under difficult circumstances.
You may read this and say “been there, done that.” Brothers and sisters, you may have been there, but you have definitely not done, nor seen, what this production presents. Let us begin with the acting clinic that Yi, Minefee, and Barry stage. They inhabit a broad mass of characters – I counted fifteen, but I can’t swear to it – with vigor and specificity.
So, for example, Minefee plays a homosexual pedophile, about sixty, white, possibly Jewish, upper middle class. I know these things not from the text but from the way he holds himself, the dialect he uses, the pace of his speech, the expression on his face. At another time, he is the man who befriended Riece in prison: Hispanic, about forty, highly intelligent, inclined to kindness but always looking out for number one. Minefee establishes these things without fuss or spectacle; everything about his performance, in all of his roles, is natural and authentic.
Here’s another example: Barry plays an old man in Grace’s neighborhood, as well as Grace’s mother, in absolutely distinct ways, even though his dialogue is entirely in Chinese. In fact, his performance in these roles is so expressive that you will think you understand what he is saying even if you, like me, speak not a word of Chinese (there are no surtitles).
And I cannot say enough about Yi. Although she looks to weigh not much more than a hundred pounds, when she takes on the role of Large’s despicable brother she is terrifying, and I was hoping that Large would pound the bejesus out of him. Of course, Yi’s primary work is with her primary character, as are Barry’s and Minefee’s, and in all three instances the work is specific, deep, subtle and absolutely true. You will leave the play feeling you know them better than you know, say, the guy in the next cubicle who keeps popping popcorn around 3 p.m.
This superb acting receives a production worthy of it – in fact, the best production I’ve seen at Woolly for a couple of years. James Garver’s sound design is particularly noteworthy; when the prison gates shut it sounds like God closing the gates of heaven on the fallen angels. Luciana Stecconi’s set is like a good piece of modern sculpture, suggestive without being overwhelming; when the gates close we are in lockdown, and when they are open we are a million miles away.
LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE
March 30 – April 26
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $68
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets or call 202-393-3939
The best thing I can say about Michael John Garcés’ direction, or about the work of any director, is that you will not notice it. This is because the movement of the actors, and their interpretation of the lines, appears to come from real life and circumstances, instead of from a text and practice. Yet it is filled with a hundred subtle touches, which show both that he understands the play and that he knows how to make you understand it too. I remember a particular moment, where Grace, talking about her goldfish, rapidly paces in a circle, giving you important information about the character and the way she feels about her life. It is not in the text, but it is there in the direction.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the text. As I said earlier, I don’t think this is a particularly great story, but playwright Chad Beckim is a master storyteller. His language has the grace of poetry without becoming poetic, and words which are almost music come out of his characters’ mouths with complete naturalness. He remembers to keep a narrative question in front of us at all times, so our minds have a chance to wonder and speculate throughout. Though his story moves back and forth in time, we are never confused about what’s going on, and when it reaches the end, he has the good sense to stop.
Lights Rise on Grace by Chad Beckim . Directed by Michael John Garcés. Featuring Jenna Yi, DeLance Minefee and Ryan Barry. Set design: Luciana Stecconi . Costume design: Ivania Stack . Lighting design: Dan Covey . Sound design: James Garver . Voice and dialect coaching: Gary Logan . Stage Manager: Roy A. Gross . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.