Himmel Can Wait: RiverCity's Grace ain't easy to watch, but it's well worth the work

Would you willingly go to a play that fiddles with the accepted notions of linear time, one in which performers act out a scene, then return to their marks and act out the same scene again? Would you attend a play that uses one set for two locations simultaneously, resulting in three actors sitting on the same couch in one scene, but two of the actors are together in apartment A and one is alone in apartment B, and it's up to you to determine who is with whom? Would you conceive of spending your money on a play that features a male lead who witnesses the Gospel of Jesus Christ at least twice in full, and not to make him a punch line, but because it means something profound to him?

Well, you ought to. RiverCity Theatre's production of Greg Wright's Grace obviously raises many questions (see above), and it hands out precious few answers in its brutal 95 minutes. Wright's deceptions of time and space are not a gimmick but an essential cog in the machinery of the plot — about equal in import to the great faith of Steve (Jason Cannon) and Sara (Sarah Cannon), fundamentalist Christian Minnesotans transplanted to Florida in order to pursue Steve's dream of creating a chain of Gospel Hotels. Next door lives Sam (Chad Morris), a NASA computer scientist whose fiancée was killed recently in the same accident that disfigured him. If you're keeping score, that's two devout believers in eternal happiness vs. one scientist with a grudge whose job requires him to grapple with time and space — throw in the sporadically appearing exterminator, Karl (Dan Shea), a World War II survivor with a dark past and a confident atheism, and you have the makings of many awful, protracted arguments.

Perhaps in lesser hands than Wright's, because instead of tired Faith vs. Facts arguments, director Greg Johnston and his pitch-perfect cast give us dialogue: passionate, at times very beautiful, conversations about why we believe or don't believe in something, be it God or our fellow man. OK, Steve argues, and he's the serial witnesser. Steve's faith is all he can conceive; from this idea, Jason Cannon creates a man who is not bad, but limited. An enthusiastic salesman, Steve attempts to sell God to others just as he sells the never-seen Swiss banker Mr. Himmelman on his hotel chain; it's a shame Mr. Himmelman's promised money never materializes, even more so if you translate that name into English (Heaven-Man).

Say Grace: Jason Cannon as Steve, Sarah Cannon as Sara and Chad Morris as Sam.
Jill Ritter
Say Grace: Jason Cannon as Steve, Sarah Cannon as Sara and Chad Morris as Sam.

Details

Grace
Through September 6 at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle Avenue.
Tickets are $20, $15 for students and seniors. Call 314-658-7200 for reservations.

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As Steve's subordinate wife, Sara, Sarah Cannon works very quietly to craft a woman who wants to share God's love, as she experiences it, with other people because she believes that "the idea that we're here beside each other and not for each other is stupid." This compassion drives her to befriend Sam against the latter's wishes, which results in some of the evening's finest scenes. Sara and Sam go through his photos and discuss happier times. Sam actually pays attention to Sara's questions — something Steve can't slow down long enough to do — and when Sara naively asks if he wants kids (her main obsession), such a lonely, bereft look strikes Morris' eye as Cannon winces at her stupidity. This subtlety and humanity — in the sense of our limitless capacity to have good intentions lead to horrible outcomes — is a recurring theme in Grace.

The end of Grace is the beginning of Grace, quite literally: What happens in the opening moments is the end of the play. Is this because there is no variance from God's plan for Steve and Sara, or is it because, as Karl grimly notes, "There is something in the world that waits. Something that comes back for us"? Grace doesn't answer, and it won't change your view of the world. But oh, it'll make you question it for a while.

 
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