MCC Theater is presenting “Grace,” an acclaimed hit at London’s Soho Theater, now making its American premiere with Lynn Redgrave reprising her starring role. The distinguished actor is a commanding presence as the title character, a British professor of science, who calls herself a “naturalist” and has little need for God; considering the belief in a higher power or divine being to be “bollocks, complete and utter bollocks!”
Grace’s staunch views will be intellectually examined in the new family drama by Mick Gordon and AC Grayling, when her son, Tom (Oscar Isaac), announces that he has decided to give up his practice of law to become an Episcopal priest. The story, a mother/son conflict, unfolds in fractured time which jumps back and forth by way of a clever gimmick that allows for often stimulating debates between Grace and her murdered son.
When the tale begins Grace takes part in an experiment designed to induce “mystical feelings” by stimulating the brain with electrical energy. We see her sitting stage left in what looks like an electric chair wearing a helmet while speaking to an unseen man, who is conducting the test by regulating the strength of the impulses. While other participants had religious visions, Grace sees only her dead son. He apparently died a violent death from an unspecified terrorist attack that may have been the result of his recent spiritual conversion.
Their even handed debate about faith is the heart of the play told with articulate dialogue that lacks sufficient character development to be richly compelling. Dramaturgically everything feels predictably neat and tidy in their one dimensional metaphysical debate. Even the extenuating conflicts from the supporting characters, Grace’s husband Tony (Philip Goodwin) and Tom’s fiancée Ruth (K.K. Moggie) feel imposed rather than character driven.
Veteran Broadway director Joseph Hardy has pumped life into the talky evening with a careful staging that has drawn committed confident performances from the ensemble. Mr. Isaac’s Tom has a sympathetic intelligence that gives the young man’s idealism an authenticity as he easily buffers his mother’s attacks.
The play paints Grace as a pragmatic scientist, who with rational common sense finds it utterly impossible to accept her son’s decision. Redgrave plays Grace as written with a rigid determination that is imposing as she fiercely defends her position. The debates between the two, although interesting, are overly philosophical and wordy. Unfortunately the smart playwrights have stacked the deck against themselves by giving Redgrave few opportunities to play the emotional struggle, which could have added needed nuance to the mother/son inter-actions. And we never do understand Tom’s sudden need for religion..
Ms. Redgrave is a powerful actor, however, and she has a beautifully realized moment near the end of the play when Grace unleashes a harrowing primal scream. Her unrelenting anguish reveals the mother’s desperate torment beneath her cynical surface. If only the playwrights had only provided more places for Ms. Redgrave to play Grace’s humanity.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originallly Published in Dans Papers
“Grace” opened on February 11, 2008 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street at Hudson Street. Tickets are available through TicketCentral.com or by calling 212-279-4200.