Saving Grace

We see them in malls and hospitals, on street corners, and mostly on the news, waving their fists at the latest injustice: religious fanatics, lecturing from their pedestals, hoping to sway anyone and everyone they pass to adopt their way of thinking. In Gip Hoppe's comic and heartrending drama, Mercy on the Doorstep, two such fanatics, a rigid pastor, Mark (Mark Rosenthal), and his newly born-again wife, Rena (Jenn Harris), move into the home of Rena's feisty, alcoholic stepmother, Corrine (Laura Esterman). Their intention is to save her soul, but they soon learn that leading a foulmouthed, iron-willed woman to God is by no means an easy task. The play opens in Corrine's living room, which soon becomes Rena and Mark's living room when it is revealed that her late husband left everything to his daughter and son-in-law in return for their assistance in leading him to Jesus. Essentially, this leaves Corrine homeless, but if she gives up her sinful ways and embraces Mark's preachings, they will allow her to continue living in the home. She, of course, balks at the idea, screaming profanities, waving an empty liquor bottle, baiting Mark with insults, and later telling Rena, "My bull---t meter went into red the minute he walked in here."

Surprisingly, given Corrine's dazed condition, that meter is correct. Mark has too many inner demons to be the good Christian man he badly wants to be. Rosenthal has this character down so well that a single glare can hold the same weight as a lengthy monologue. The females exchange loud, cutting words when they are upset, but Rosenthal sits silently in a chair with anger practically steaming from his ears.

Rena is the most sympathetic member of the household, loved by both Mark and Corrine for the same traits they hate in each other. Mark admires her obedience and unconditional loyalty as a wife and Christian, whereas Corrine longs for Rena's wild side. Both are so busy accusing the other of offending Rena the Pious Wife or Rena the Repressed Rebel that neither can see her for who she is: a compassionate, insightful woman capable of loving both her husband and stepmother with the same open heart.

Rena has had bad luck in life: two parents who seemed more intent on partying than raising her, and whom we sense even encouraged her self-destructive behavior. Marrying Mark and embracing Jesus changed her life but not her personality. We see remnants of the old Rena, especially in a funny and telling scene where she hears the seductive Marcy Playground song "Sex and Candy" on the radio and starts innocently dusting to its tempo. After a quick look around to ensure no one is watching, she turns up the volume and throws herself into it, dancing on the table, straddling the banister, and unabashedly indulging in the very behavior she and Mark are trying to beat out of Corrine.

Corrine and Mark's fights often feel like a tug of war over Rena, who watches them try so hard to save each other's souls that they wind up destroying their own. Their fights illustrate the need for conversion, though not necessarily in a religious sense. Everyone needs to change, including Corrine, whom Rena still wants to lead to God not because she fears Corrine is headed for eternal damnation but because she wants to see her stepmother embrace something other than a bottle.

With Mercy on the Doorstep Hoppe has created three very nuanced and believable characters whom audiences can easily invest their emotions in. After seeing their pain and learning about their troubled pasts, we want them to find happiness. Despite their bickering and unwavering confidence in their own beliefs, Corrine, Mark, and Rena are all lost souls who desperately need to be saved, not by religion but by each other.

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