The Book of Grace
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
March 14, 2010
You'd be hard-pressed to find a family more screwed up than the one featured in The Book of Grace. The Book of Grace is Suzan-Lori Parks's excellent new three-person play at the Public, directed by James MacDonald. This riveting character-driven drama explores the limits and power of goodness. It begins with a young man named Buddy paying a visit to his estranged father Vet. It is the first time Vet and Buddy have seen each other in "ten years," says Vet. "Fifteen years," says Buddy. "Point taken," says Vet.
Vet (played by John Doman) is a gruff officer on the Mexican border patrol, minding the big fence. He is obsessed with the idea of borders: geographical, symbolic, and emotional. He is also obsessed with ironing his pants, wields a mean iron, and thinks a nice sharp crease is like a strong border. Of his illegal immigrant foes and his pants he says, "they see these creases and they know they're done for." Instead of hugging his son upon seeing him, he meets his son's open arms by frisking him and then searches his bag in a degrading display he calls "homeland security." Vet offers his son the paltriest scraps of kindness and heaps of insults and distrust. Back when Buddy was a child, Vet dug a ditch in the backyard for Buddy's mother (whom he abused) so that he could be prepared in advance for when she died. When his new wife Grace displeases him, he digs another ditch as a warning to her.
Buddy (played by Amari Cheatom) has newly left military service and is hoping to get a job on the border patrol with the help of his father Vet, whom he hates and fears. Buddy spends much of the play caught between wanting to make good out of his life and wanting to exact revenge for all the pain he's been through. In the military he shot M-16s and specialized in blowing things up with grenades. This followed his childhood tendencies which included trying to blow up a tree that dropped a pine cone on his head and setting off firecrackers in his father's car. This behavior is not surprising as he grew up witnessing the abuse of his mother, suffering "unspeakable" sexual abuse from his father, and then was left to fend for himself. One of few nice things that ever happened to him was meeting his stepmother Grace, with whom he has corresponded in letters.
Grace (played by Elizabeth Marvel) is a diner waitress. She keeps herself going by always looking for the "evidence of good things." Her belief in the good in the world and the potential for good in all people is a beautiful counterpoint in the play. She is compiling a book about goodness. She gathers photos and articles from newspapers that give her hope and happiness. She adds them to her book along with stories and observations she types on her typewriter herself. Vet doesn't like books of any kind because "they weaken the mind." Buddy and Grace grow very fond of each other through their letters—too fond in fact. But their friendship provides a welcome retreat from the grim reality of life with Vet for each of them. These moments between them are fragile, unguarded little breaths of joy.
So when these characters get together, it feels like a powder keg is ready to blow. This is due in large part to the deeply invested performances by all three actors, who make us fear what they'll do and fear for their safety. You spend the whole play biting your nails wondering who is going to stumble and catch Vet's wrath. Will he find Grace's book? Will he get wise to Buddy's real reason to visit? Who will suddenly, violently snap? The Book of Grace has the tension of a thriller but it is a more lyrical and beautifully written one than you'll ever see on TV. There is poetry in abundance in the lines themselves. Then there's the thematic poetry in whether hope can triumph over despair. It is a play about how many times a human being can be beaten down like a dog and still act out of goodness. And it is a play about how much that human can take and forgive before wreaking revenge.