Grace Notes

Are you tired of the endless hours of presidential candidate debates, in which important issues seem to vanish into personalities, egos, and pundit prattle? Free yourself from the vicious election cycle and dive into the fresh approach of Grace, a captivating new play that doesn’t merely give a nod to timely issues; instead, this expert cast—led by the mesmerizing Lynn Redgrave, in a fiercely powerful and devastatingly potent performance—attacks, engages, flips, and wrestles with the timely topic (and inherent problems) of contemporary religion. An acclaimed import from London (you even get to leave the country!), Grace sets up a provocative dialogue, but not between nations or candidates. Instead, writers Mick Gordon and AC Grayling construct a rift between two warring forces within a timeless construct: a family. On one side, Grace Friedman (Redgrave) is a rigid rationalist and a determined atheist; an outspoken professor and lecturer on the “absurdity” of religion, she finds solace in reason and the indisputable evidence of scientific facts. So when her beloved son, Tom (Oscar Isaac), announces his disillusionment with practicing law and his intention to become an Episcopalian priest, he doesn’t just shake up Grace’s world, he throttles it.

Before Tom’s momentous announcement, we get a sense of the Friedman family life: stark candidness is encouraged (“Mom! Too much information!” Tom protests when Grace shares one of her torrid youthful sexual encounters), everything is up for debate, and there are no rules against chemical experimentation (Tom gleefully remembers the time when he spiked his father’s dinner with a crushed Ecstasy tablet). Most significantly, this is a family alive with intellectual energy and affection: when Tom arrives with his fiancée Ruth (K.K. Moggie), the foursome immediately swings into the easy rhythms of familiar conversation.

But Tom’s disclosure throws the group into their own corners—Tom’s father, Tony (Philip Goodwin), who is Jewish, attempts to play peacemaker between his wife and son, who launch into fiery, emphatic, and exhilarating debates. “It’s faith or reason,” Grace argues, but Tony protests that there is not simply religion and non-religion; instead, he aspires to turn “bad religion” into “good religion”—a faith that will appeal to thinking, moderate, self-critical people.

Gordon and Grayling move the arguments beyond oversimplification: when Grace accuses Tom of being nothing more than a “salesman,” he retorts that he was more of a salesman when he was practicing law, and then accuses her of being the fundamentalist for her rigid devotion to the laws of science.

The scenes vault back and forth across time, overlapping and often seeming to tear away at each other. As director Joseph Hardy has brilliantly conceived it, this potent topic may be cerebral, but its animation is both hauntingly acute and brutally visceral.

And his fantastic cast is well up to the task, attacking the material with extraordinary articulation and sophisticated depth. Redgrave and Isaac’s verbal duels are thrilling duets of vigorous elocution, and as the doting father figure, Goodwin offers an unforgettable, generous performance steeped in dry wit. On the periphery of the family, Moggie is commanding as the no-nonsense Ruth, a pragmatic lawyer who doesn’t believe in God. As Ruth navigates the minefield of issues in the Friedman family and struggles to understand Tom’s decision, Moggie carefully peels away Ruth’s layers to reveal a core of surprising complexity.

Tobin Ost’s sleek, spare, and modern set provides an elegant canvas for these vibrant debates, and Fabian Obispo’s punctuated sound design crisply launches the characters into each scene.

When a tragic event intercedes and further unravels the characters’ lives, ideological dilemmas shift into personal crises. This careful attention to an issue’s power to inform both your heart and your head makes Grace an emotional and cerebral firecracker of a show—unlike most political debates, this drama will leave you satiated yet itching for more.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post