Theater for Thought
Suzan-Lori Parks' latest play is intense. Like, whoa.
Within the tight confines of the Whisenhunt Stage at ZACH Theatre, there’s a harsh sense of feeling trapped. We as audience members are huddled together to witness a slowly unfolding tragedy that we can do nothing to stop.
How we get there and why is where the brilliance of Parks’ writing comes in.
Her latest play, The Book of Grace, which she workshopped here at the ZACH, is a metaphorically enriched morality tale set in a small Texas border town in the home of Vet, a gruff, unshakeable patrol guard who reveres walls of all kinds.
The intimate theatre-in-the-round has been adorned by images of the actual wall separating Texas from Mexico projected on four large screens above our heads.
The only ways out of the space are four exit doors leading to the house’s “kitchen,” “bedroom,” “backyard,” and “front porch.” But of course, like the resigned housewife Grace of the play’s title, we’re not going anywhere.
After watching the projections of the border walls for what seems like eternity, we feel the monotony of the border patrol agents’ jobs, begging for the action to happen.
And then it does, like a gunshot.
Parks efficiently provides the blueprint for each of the three characters’ motivations in the rapid-fire monologues at the opening of the play.
The stakes are immediately sky-high, and we know that none of these characters are going to make it out of this play unscathed.
Neither are we, the audience.
We are quickly indicted in Parks’ exquisitely personified contemplation on the ugly, impossible impacts of the ongoing border wars currently raging in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
She shines a glaring megawatt light on three distinct viewpoints on the matter in the form of her three fully etched characters.
Vet (played commandingly and unapologetically by theatre veteran Eugene Lee) is the uncompromising patriot who only sees the world in black and white, Us vs. Them. He has alienated his wife Grace and his son Buddy with his violent temper and distrust, and he is unwilling to compromise in any of his moral stances.
Nadine Mozon brings the intelligent, hopeful waitress Grace to elegant, versatile life in every scene in which she appears. After swallowing Vet’s wrath for years, Grace hides her recorded book of “good things” from Vet so she can continue coping with her everyday life.
Vet’s son, Buddy, explosively portrayed by Shaun Patrick Tubbs, has begrudgingly returned home by request of his new stepmother, Grace. He holds a bottomless well of resentment toward Vet for an unrevealed atrocity from their past. With his similarly boiling temper, Buddy is too late to realize just how similar he is to his father.
Ms. Parks herself directed the play, so it's as visceral as the words on the pages she wrote.As each chapter of Grace’s book unfolds, Parks pits her characters’ stories against one another to provide cleverly veiled commentary on the effects of hostility towards outsiders.
And all the while, we’re surrounded by the oppressive walls along the border.
Each character explains how secrets have stunted their development, but each displays his or her secrets quite prominently on the stage throughout the play. We know it’s only a matter of time before one or all of them are discovered.
This is not to say that there are not light moments throughout the play. In fact, most scenes in the first act with the eponymous Grace feel breezy, much to the credit of the wide-eyed grin and formidable efforts of Mozon as Grace.
Don’t be fooled, though. There’s no way a border war is going to end happily.
Anyone expecting a quaint, quiet night at the theatre will likely be sorely disappointed (as I’m sure a number of the confused patrons in the audience tonight were). The dialogue is challenging and steeped in symbolism, the action is loud and violent and unflinching. Ms. Parks herself directed the play, so it's as visceral as the words on the pages she wrote.
However, if you’re in the mood to do the work engaging and reflecting on the piece and its layers, The Book of Grace is a stunning example of necessary contemporary theatre.
Mind you, I don’t know I’ll be able to witness this play again any time soon. But I will continue unpacking it and sharing it with others for quite some time.
The Book of Grace runs until July 24, 2011. Tickets are available through the ZACH box office.