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THEATER BEAT

Taking on a tangled issue with `Grace'

October 13, 2006|Philip Brandes, David C. Nichols, Charlotte Stoudt

Questions of faith and science tend to polarize around predictable rhetoric, but Craig Wright's "Grace" brings refreshing -- though far from reassuring -- complexity to what is fast becoming the most urgent philosophical issue of our time.

A former Methodist seminarian turned writer for stage ("Recent Tragic Events") and TV ("Six Feet Under"), Wright spins rigorous theological inquiry with an accomplished dramatist's flair. Edgy, raucous and uncompromising, his dark examination of fundamentalist Christians adrift in suburban Florida receives a sharp staging from the Furious Theatre Company.

A deceptively conventional love triangle, whose tragic outcome we witness at the outset, drives the story of Steve (Brad Price) and Sara (Sara Hennessy), a devout Minnesota couple newly arrived in the Sunshine State to develop a chain of Gospel-themed "Sonrise" motels with the catchy slogan: "Where would Jesus stay?"

Uptight and inflexible in his belief system, Steve pursues this dream with a painfully naive lack of reality testing where his funding is concerned. The lonely Sara makes a reclamation project out of their neighbor, Sam (Eric Pargac), an agnostic engineer embittered by a car crash that killed his fiancee and left him disfigured. Dana Kelly Jr. delivers a memorable supporting turn as a cynical pest exterminator.

The inevitable romantic betrayal comes as no surprise, but the ways these characters wrestle with it aches with unexpected and unsettling spiritual anguish. How can Sara's noble ideal that "we're here for each other, not just here beside each other" be reconciled with the inescapable clash of individual needs born of that interconnectedness?

With admirable clarity, director Damaso Rodriguez steers his skilled cast through Wright's dense ruminations, with notable fuel from Doug Newell's high-decibel sound design.

While sometimes upstaged by its own cleverness, this thoughtful piece effectively frames the potential catastrophic consequences that go with being a believer rather than a knower -- whether in a Florida condo or by implication a more prominent Pennsylvania Avenue address.

-- Philip Brandes

"Grace," Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 11. $15-$24. (626) 356-7529 or www.furioustheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Wilson's 'Jitney' arrives with polish

Powerhouse performances and fine staging lend fire and authenticity to the late August Wilson's "Jitney" at Hollywood's Lillian Theatre. Many of the Stagewalker Productions team that mounted an accomplished "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" revival in this venue in 2004 have returned with even sharper focus and polish this time around.

Director Claude Purdy is a worthy torchbearer for Wilson's dramatic vision, with its vivid characters, street-smart wit and wisdom, and unsentimental, clear-eyed insight into the struggles of black Americans.

Set in 1977, this installment of Wilson's 10-play "Pittsburgh Cycle" chronicling life in different decades of the last century depicts a group of "gypsy" taxi drivers serving a poor neighborhood that licensed cabs refuse to enter. Amid the realistically detailed rundown former law office and pay phone that serves as their dispatch station, the regulars play checkers, squabble and meddle in one another's lives as they wait for customer calls.

Presiding as foster patriarch over this rowdy family is the self-made owner, Becker, played by James Avery with affecting heart and dignity. In one of the play's three main subplots, Becker faces an uncomfortable reunion with his son, Booster (fiery Richard Brooks), just released from prison after a 20-year sentence. With the implacable logic of a Greek tragedy, Booster's crime embodied the no-win dilemma of a man of principle whose only way to defend his integrity was through murder -- a heartbreaking paradox of this country's fractured racial heritage. Sadly, father and son can't get past their mutual disappointment in one another.

Against that conflict is the touchingly played romance between Youngblood (Russell Andrews), a Vietnam War vet chasing the American dream of homeownership, and his girl (Lizette Diaz Carion).

Embracing broader social issues, the jitney drivers are facing the impending demolition of their headquarters as part of an urban renewal project that promises nothing but dislocation and menace.

Written in 1986, "Jitney" was one of Wilson's first plays, and despite subsequent reworking its inherent structural limitations (Booster's late entrance, a thickly melodramatic penultimate scene) reveal a major talent still grappling with the mechanics of his craft. Although Wilson dealt more effectively with some of these themes in later works, a pitch-perfect ensemble gives it the best possible treatment. Here's hoping this company continues the series -- Wilson's legacy is in good hands.

-- P.B.

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