Reading

The Book of Grace at the Strand Theater

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Suzan-Lori Parks is best known for making dark fun of icons of American history. Her earlier acclaimed works, The America Play (1994) and Topdog/Underdog (2001), feature Black men who make livings impersonating Abraham Lincoln and encourage sideshow visitors to reenact Lincoln’s assassination. Parks argues that American history, as most of us were taught it, is something like a sideshow to the actual experience of Black Americans, as it has intended to obscure or distract from our nation’s past. 

Receiving its local premier by Rapid Lemon Productions at the Strand TheaterThe Book of Grace, focuses on a newer American icon, the “Fence”: the chain-link barrier along the border between south Texas and Mexico, and precursor to the Trump administration’s steel wall. Here the icon is, like an assassination, grim—and its implications, disturbing.

The Book of Grace opens with a familiar theme, the love-hate relationship between a domineering father and an aspiring son. By the end of the play that conflict has taken on world-shattering significance for both men. Buddy, at twenty-five, comes back after fifteen years to south Texas where his father, Vet, a Border Patrol officer, lives with Buddy’s stepmother, Grace.

Buddy claims his father did something “unspeakable” to him; he expects to talk the matter out, reconcile, and perhaps get his father’s help in joining the Border Patrol. The reconciliation never takes place. Vet, threatened, refuses to acknowledge his son’s grievances. Buddy takes his father’s old name, Snake, and begins planning a murder-suicide that he believes, thanks to social media, will set off a world-wide uprising against “The Man”. When Vet convinces himself that Grace and Snake have been intimate, he explodes in a murderous rage, grippingly staged by Casey Kaleba. The play ends with Snake strapping on a grenade vest. 

Jess Rivera as Grace
Pierre Walters as Buddy
Benny Pope as Vet

This production features outstanding performances by the three cast members. Benny Pope, as Vet, becomes a man unable to live without fences to separate right from wrong, his from others’. At the same time he conveys Vet’s child-like pride in the fence he defends. Pierre Walters skillfully portrays Buddy sliding from a hopeful young man to a powder keg of resentment. Jess Rivera shows Grace growing out of her maddening preoccupation with Hallmark card optimism as she tries to support Buddy. In the last scene, Grace, having survived her husband’s assault, or as a ghost—the production leaves that open—restrains Buddy/Snake from his doomed rampage.

Lauren Davis directed the show admirably, getting the cast to navigate a script that alternates between short lines and pauses and lengthy monologues. Kai Hopkins, the set designer, ingeniously furnished the house with footlockers—one even serves as the refrigerator—to convey Vet’s habit of precisely boxing emotions and values. The walls are covered with pages from a notebook like the one that Grace fills with heart-warming events. One might take them for stars in the sky were they not spattered with red paint. Deana Fisher Bill’s costumes are accurate and effective. 

 

Rapid Lemon’s production of The Book of Grace runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 and Sunday at 2:00 through January 28 at the Strand Theater, 5426 Harford Rd. 

Left to right: Benny Pope as Vet and Pierre Walters as Buddy

Photos courtesy of Rapid Lemon Productions

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