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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Lights Rise on Grace — Azuka Theatre at the Adrienne

grace - interior 2“Tough” is the operative word for the unnurtured souls in Chad Beckim’s “Lights Rise on Grace.”

The three focal characters all come from the same lower class New York City area where conformity is expected, and love comes as a premium. The neighborhood Grace, Lawrence, and Riece share is not one that coddles children or awards any, let alone every one of them, a medal. It’s a gritty place where children are told they’re useless and no good. If they have some fun between work or have some trait a parent doesn’t like, the child is denigrated, neglected, or cast out, sans cash or any other form of backing, to fend for him- or herself in an unwelcoming world.

Grace’s offense is not being the strictly obedient Chinese girl her mother demands she be. When Grace begins dating a black man, the mother, and Grace’s Asian neighbors, do not demur from expressing their disapproval to Grace or her beau. Riece is born into a hardscrabble survive-as-you-will existence. He knows nothing but the hustle of the streets and graduates quickly from stints in juvie and 90 days at Rikers to a full-fledged prison sentence for a crime he tries to rationalize to a judge but can’t (and shouldn’t; it merits jail time). Lawrence, called Large, also winds up in prison, a bit of a surprise because he has a genuinely gentle and friendly nature that doesn’t hint at rage. violence, or engrained delinquency like Riece’s. Dealing with the rejecting folks at home sets off Large’s trigger, and when he gets to jail, Beckim has him say it’s not much different from the ghetto. Fellow inmates remind him of his brother whose taunts led to the assault that earns Large a place behind bars.

Beckim sets these three characters in a tense roundelay that shows them interacting with affection, contempt, gratitude, resentment, love, and misunderstanding all underpinned by a strong psychosexual bond. Large is the centerpiece. He meets Grace before he is jailed for paralyzing his brother. He makes a difference in Grace’s isolated, regimented life, because of both the attention he pays to her and the ongoing consequences of their relationship. Grace is stunned when she doesn’t hear from Large for the six years he’s incarcerated and more stunned when he shows up after that lapse. Riece is the prisoner who brings Large out of his shell. They’re jail buddies with “gay for the stay” benefits, but unlike most prison relationships, theirs continues when both men are free. Grace and Riece never make love, but Grace likes his relative stability and reliability. Riece has matured in prison and become a stand-up guy. Large comes out of jail confused about a lot of things, including his feelings towards Riece. Homosexuality is now a manifest part of Large’s being — His disparaging father suspected it always was. — and he has to reconcile his desires for men with his sincere love for Grace and the son he didn’t know he had until he returned from prison. Large, being black, is also saddled with the inability to find a job as an ex-con, a situation that is less of a problem for Riece, who is white.

You see all of the dynamics Beckim has going on at once. There’s the genuine love each character feels for the other, Grace’s and Large’s being the strongest. There’s the struggle of the discarded to make some kind of life and living with no headstart and little support. There’s the vestiges each carries of his or her rejection and individual wonder if there is a haven of unconditional acceptance or even a place to fit in. There are personalities who act out their emotions instead of being governed by reason, at least with the men. There’s the remnants of jail time and Grace’s cognate, a period of promiscuity when she had indiscriminate sex with men to erase the tenderness and contentment she found with the missing Large. And there’s the need to grow up, cope with facts, make life work on the terms given, and get past the injuries, regrets, and suppressed feelings to move on to some semblance of happiness.

There’s honesty in Beckim’s play that, like Grace’s light, rises to compensate for times when the author is pushing towards sentimentality or doesn’t convey a complete understanding the of the situation he is depicting. Beckim asks you to indulge a kind of verbal shorthand and go with him when he’s trying to palm off the contrived and self-consciously dramatic as deep or incisive. There are time when Beckim’s discernable intentions outrun his talent for putting them on the stage.

“Lights Rise on Grace” is not a perfect play, but it is an engrossing one because the characters, once they let down the barriers, win you to their side. You embrace them even if their families, or society, don’t. Beckim is lucky to have the strong production Kevin Glaccum has mounted for Philadephia’s Azuka Theatre. Bi Jean Ngo, Ashton Carter, and Keith Conallen bring depth to the people they are playing and urgency to the lives they are trying to carve. Beckim’s flaws in structure, self-conscious delays at revealing pertinent information, such as why Large is in jail, and shorthand approach to dialogue, don’t irritate to the extent they could because Glaccum creates a wonderful balance between fever pitch and the lull when characters settle into something routine and solid. He and his actors keep us interested in all that is going on even when Beckim is being withholding or showy. Glaccum keeps the 90 minutes it takes “Grace” to unfold taut and telling. You believe the characters Ngo, Carter, and Conallen are playing. Beckim may make false or gratuitous moves as a young playwright, but Glaccum and his cast never follow suit. It is their intensity and their journeys that keep you riveted. You truly want the best for each in this trio. Your heart breaks when there are setbacks, and you feel angry when one character fails to understand how settled and untroubled matters have become and sabotages his or her own contentment. “Light Rises on Grace” is already a decent play, but Glaccum makes it better by emphasizing the characters’ for-better-or-worse humanity and by never letting matters get melodramatic and sentimental.

Beckim likes patterns. Two of the characters meet other, and Riece meets his first prison friend, according to the same paradigm. The character is isolated and standoffish. He or she doesn’t look at anyone and shifts his or her gaze at the notion someone might be watching or paying attention. Grace is the shy girl in school who does her work, goes home to help in her family’s business,  and never communes with another soul. Large and Riece, at separate times, are entering prison, a world unto itself, and are reluctant to show any signs of being sociable or vulnerable. Large breaks the ice with Grace by asking her name and making a joke about her silence when she doesn’t answer. He reviews the social niceties that accompany being asked a question. “See, when I say ‘what is your name?,’ you’re supposed to say, ‘My name is blah-blah-blah’ and ask me mine.”

Riece and Large repeat the gambit when Riece speaks to a receding Large in prison. The scene is played again with Carter playing another prisoner and initiating the newbie Riece in prison etiquette. The bit underscores the bashfulness, alienation, and fear the characters harbor. Each is forced by the will of another to speak, give basic information, start a conversation or relationship, and normalize a situation that is real and ongoing, such as attraction or the prospect of remaining for years in an institution that is now your home.

NealBoxGlaccum and set designer Colin McIlvaine ingeniously use chain link curtains on three tracks to suggest or authenticate confinement. You see Large and Riece in their cells or talking to prison administrators through the fencing. The presence of the curtains always give the impression the characters are limited or trapped even in scenes that are open, outdoors, or have no sense of claustrophobia, let alone a relationship to prison. This adds to the production’s tension and reminds that doors can be closed and sealed at times.

“Lights Rise on Grace” is effective even though Beckim begins it almost as an expressionistic mystery. You see Grace looking though street fencing at men trying to find the one who eluded her and making herself available to any takers. You know Grace’s degradation has something to do with a man who abandoned her, but Beckim likes to defer being specific. He works in generalities and backs into reasons, truths, and causes. Some, but little, of this causes genuine suspense. More often, it’s a ploy to keep you wondering about what you just saw is all about.

I get the feeling the careful timing of revelations is a way for Beckim to extend his play. In today’s world of 90 minutes and out, playwrights seem to struggle to fill that minimal duration. (Pinter’s “Old Times” on Broadway is clocking in at slightly more than an hour!) Curiosity is different from suspense. Beckim doesn’t move you to the edge of your seat and make you worry about Grace or have a stake in whether she finds the man she is supposedly seeking. He makes you wonder if he’ll ever tell you how this scene fits into the overall play. To Beckim’s credit, he never fails to tie back loose ends, but what you find out, when you find it out, satisfies your inquisitiveness more than it moves you emotionally or binds you to the characters. Again, Beckim is lucky to have Kevin Glaccum and in this opening scene, Bi Jean Ngo. to give you a reason to care about what he’s presenting. In lesser hands, it would be just as easy to dismiss Grace as a self-destructive nymphomaniac and lose all interest in her story.

You get the same perception of incompleteness when Large approaches Grace to introduce himself and instruct her in conversation. Ngo and Carter makes the scene interesting, but there’s no sense of place. You realize you’re in a public setting, probably indoors, perhaps a school, perhaps a library, but you’re not sure, and you want more definition. There’s a feeling that something is missing and of deception. Carter and Ngo take care of riveting you to the characters and their byplay. You are especially taken by Carter’s easy, unthreatening charm in this scene. He’s having fun while getting the attention of a lonely girl who has interested him and sparked his imagination. It isn’t until a few scenes later you realize Grace is a teenager, and the meeting was at a high school locker. By then, it’s a bit of a shock. Not a telling or moving shock. A benign shock because when you learn what you want to know, it doesn’t matter. It may never have mattered, yet it seemed an omission when Grace and Large were talking. Beckim makes a game of withholding or avoiding context. You see the wheels spinning in the playwright’s head and his self-conscious satisfaction at a literary choice that seems gimmicky and needs to be outgrown.

You feel the reaction again when the mesh curtain comes forward to imply jail, and Carter is handed the orange fatigues that denote a prison uniform. You wonder, against nagging hope, when Beckim will tell you why Large is locked up, and whether he’s under arrest or serving a sentence. You also at this point wonder about Grace, because even though her descent to the city’s tenderloin has been put in deferred context, you don’t know if Large has called or written her to inform of his change of address.

The sincerity Glaccum and company instill takes the sting out of Beckim’s secrecy and keeps you involved in “Grace,” but you shouldn’t notice so much of the playwright’s technique and think so little of it. Such as intuiting this is a young playwright who wants to gloat in his cleverness rather than tell a story. Beckim has written a good play. There’s no residual benefit in delaying information. Maybe the playwright thinks us knowing that Large is in jail and has some awakening adventures to face is enough. Maybe he thinks jail is the logical consequence of Large’s environment and should be taken for granted. If so, his writing approach is too smug. It’s true for me that by the time I found out Large pummeled his brother, it was more like an asterisk than an exclamation point, but that’s more of a reason to present the facts upfront and not make them such a for-me-to-know-for-you-to-find-out affair. The facts Beckim keeps from us have would more dramatic and emotional impact at the point of most curiosity than they do when you’re finally informed.

“Grace” is strongest when there’s real conflict or real bonding between/among the characters. This is where the drama lies. In Grace and Large’s case, you’re happy they found each other and can give each other some affection and so much understanding. Even when Grace’s Chinese neighbors are making mean slurs about Large in Mandarin. There’s more tension and imagination involved in Large’s relationship with Riece, especially while the men are in prison, but there’s also a warmth and a sense that Large will be safer and, perhaps, more self-aware in Riece’s care. One thing Beckim does well is offset the tenderness between men in prison with two stark scenes, one in which Riece makes his sexual needs plain and another is which Riece, a teenager at the time, is indoctrinated in the ways of jailhouse sex. It is a sign of maturity in Beckim’s writing that he doesn’t parallel Riece’s experience as a newbie with Large’s.

Confrontation scenes are particularly affecting. Some are justified. Others spring from the paranoia or neurosis about one character towards another. The power comes from how much we like Grace, Large, and Riece when the serious upheavals in their lives has levelled and it seems as if the rough sailing these characters knew is finally over. You want the best for them. You want to provide the support that was non-existent in their childhoods. Seeing things fall apart, as perhaps they must, becomes hard to watch in the right way, the way in which you’re enthralled by the drama but crushed by events you don’t want to happen.

Each character is affected differently by his or her ordeal. Grace, always the most level, deals with hardship and finds her equilibrium even though, emotionally, she would like to give herself permission to fall apart. She can’t. She has met every challenge and become a responsible adult. Besides, she has her son to care for and love in a way that might prevent some of her hurt and feelings of abandonment. Riece has seen where street life will lead. The state, seeing how petty crime led to assault. purposely arranged for him to spend his twenties in jail, and time has, surprisingly, given him courage and wisdom that will probably keep him free through old age. Large, so loveable, in the early scenes is the character who has to discover who he is and how to live in his skin. While everything can be neat and pleasant for Large, he is too insecure to accept his relative good fortune. He needs to follow other urges and seek more experience. Being a father, given the examples he’s seen, scares him the most. His sensitivity also prevents from forgetting matters that were situational if emotionally gratifying and, possibly, indicative of a life he’d need to seek away from Grace.

Bi Jean Ngo shows the fortitude of Grace. She may not have been loved by her parents, but Grace inherited some of he family’s Chinese discipline and will to work hard and succeed. Meeting Large, and being cast out of her family home, might have accelerated Grace’s need to be mature, and Ngo cannily show the transition from a shrinking schoolgirl to a woman who is fit to start a business and support a child.

Ngo is touching as she plays Grace’s steadfastness. No matter who she solicited and how long she did it, Ngo’s Grace is a one-man woman, and she shows devotion to Large even when all he merits is her rebuke.

Ashton Carter makes a strong transition from a gushy, gawky lover to a man who seems to have a sea of troubles to cope with but will approach them like a man, even though Large never quite steps away from being the child who wants approval but only gets disdain.

Keith Conallen lives Riece along with portraying him. This character could be met on street in any. Conallen gives Riece a crust that serves him as a punky jail dude and the solid man he is destined to become.

Conallen has the demeanor Riece will be ready to stand up to and for anything. His face has a hard expression, and he is no-nonsense, but he’s a man you can trust and who has enough humanity to temper his hardness and have regard for a boy growing up without a father and a woman who can only be his friend,

By the time it ends, “Lights Rise on Grace” is a smart depiction of how we all exist in our own little worlds and have to fend for ourselves. Even if we eventually find a kind of support and some happy intersection with others.

“Lights Rise on Grace,” produced by Azuka Theatre, runs through Sunday, November 22, at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-563-1100 or by visiting www.azukatheatre.org.

 

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