Heather McDonaldis a talented writer of eloquent passion, but "When Grace Comes In" is a play which is both over-written and under-realized. The story of a woman whose domestic life overwhelms her fading artistic dreams, it attempts to do so many things, in so many different ways, that it ultimately fails to answer the main character's central question. In the face of our responsibilities to others, what is the final responsibility that we have to ourselves, and what is the cost of pursuing it? For all the richness of the playwright's theatrical techniques, for all the elegance and desire in her words, for all the importance of the questions posed, in the end we are left feeling that nothing has been adequately examined, that the characters are too thin, the conflicts too one-dimensional, and the resolution too easily achieved.
Margaret Grace Braxton (Jane Beard) is a woman with three children, an ambitious husband, an aging mother, and a foreclosed life. Her husband is consumed by crass ambition and disconnected emotions. Her mother (Anne Gee Byrd) has imposed unfulfilled expectations from her own life onto her daughter. The children are demanding and petty. One is an insolent teenager, one is a sensitive boy with crippled hands and his own artistic promise, one is an innocent given to speaking like a precocious sage. Grace's days are filled with nearly maddening routine and disappointment, and her grip on reality is desperate enough that she leaves her car on the side of the road, door open, in order to walk alone through the night. Fantasy is the only believable alternative to a reality that seems immutable. It is an all too common woman's life.
In this play, she wants something more, something important only to herself. Grace wants to go to Italy, where she spent happy days in her youth, and to once again pursue her ambitions as an art restorer, working on the decayed works of the great masters. She leaves her family (which has been her life), her Senator husband (whom she thinks she still loves) and her children (who need her in various ways that are only lightly examined) and follows a flamboyant Italian schoolmaster (played with dash by Kevin C. Loomis). When her husband finally visits a year later, too much has changed between them, and no one can return to their previous lives.
The problems are not really in this production. Sharon Ott's direction is solid and intelligent, and Ms. Beard delivers a committed and often affecting performance in the central role, but nothing can change the fact that this is an assemblage of ideas and intentions, gestures and imaginings, but not an artistic whole. Too often we hear the beautifully crafted words of a poetic soul yearning for a life of balance and completeness. Too often the characters exist to demonstrate Grace's problems, rather than as complete beings with their own ambitions and frustrations and needs. Repeatedly, it feels like scenes that simply have to occur between characters are missing, primarily because they don't advance Grace's agenda. Wonderful flights of fantasy are far more interesting than real life scenes, mostly because they feel more believable than the real life scenes. I think Ms. McDonald's intention is genuine and deeply felt, but the execution is contrived and, ultimately, false. It's too much like snooping through an artist's daily journal, full of ideas and half-explored insights, but without a clear structure, layered development or careful finish.
Jane Beard certainly gave herself completely to this woman's circumstance, but the text leaves us feeling highly uncertain about her choices, their consequence, and what they tell us about her character. Mark Chamberlin is convincing enough as a U.S. Senator that I couldn't believe that he was really as shallow and imperceptive and simple as the play would have us believe. The scene when he finally rejoins her in Italy was the best of the evening, but it comes too late. Even more, it simply reminds us of how much scenes of raw emotion between characters might have added to the evening. Too much in this play is soft-focus and fuzzy, with the majority of the deepest emotions only belonging to Grace. The children do reasonably well in their roles, but they feel much more like stage beings than human beings. Even the set, spare pieces on a bare stage, with suggestive painterly backdrops, seems rather skimpy and inexpressive.
In the end, this is a play that wants to be so much better than it is, performed by actors who have more to offer than their characters are allowed, and which brings us not to new understanding, but to a disappointing recognition that we already know more about all of this than we've learned during the evening. Heather McDonald can write beautifully, but she needs to build her drama much more carefully.
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