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Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” That statement is one of the central points of playwright Craig Wright’s award-winning Broadway debut, Grace. Born-again couple Steve (Paul Rudd) and Sara (Kate Arrington) have moved from Minnesota to Florida in order to open the first of what Steve hopes to be a major chain of evangelical gospel hotels. They are living next door to the reclusive Sam (Michael Shannon, Arrington’s real-life partner), a NASA scientist with a severely disfigured face as a result of a horrific accident in which he lost his wife. Steve and Sara are in love with life and all the possibilities offered by Jesus, while Sam is on a downward spiral; a computer genius, he seems to have lost all of his digital photos of his last vacation with his wife, battling over the phone with a customer service representative in a final, desperate attempt to recover his fading visual memories. As Sara tries to become friends with Sam despite his loud, nasty protestations to be left alone, Steve’s deal is not as solid as he originally thought, leading to a violent conclusion — which is actually repeated from the first scene of the play, as everything that happens is a flashback explaining the horrific beginning. Built around four strong performances — Oscar nominee Shannon is particularly mesmerizing as Sam, a deeply troubled soul who has lost his faith, and multiple Emmy winner Ed Asner offers strong, if brief, support as talkative exterminator Karl, who shares a dark secret from his days growing up in Germany during the Holocaust — Grace is an intriguing exploration of belief, in both love and religion, as well as humanity’s endless search for something bigger than themselves.
By beginning with the end, Wright (Mistakes Were Made, The Pavilion) and director Dexter Bullard (Mistakes Were Made, Bug) cast an immense shadow over the story, as the audience knows how terribly things are going to turn out, yet getting there is still compelling if at times confusing, with several scenes being told both forward and in reverse, raising questions of free will and preordained destiny. Meanwhile, Beowulf Boritt’s set, a single apartment that doubles as Sam’s as well as Steve and Sara’s, with everyone occupying the same space at the same time, occasionally rotates, perhaps hinting at the endless spinning of the planet, perhaps just an inexplicable special effect. In the background is a trompe l’oeil painting of a cloudy but bright blue sky, which means something very different to the extremely religious Sam and Steve (who also is dedicated to the capitalist green god, money) and to nonbelievers Sam and Karl; the latter regularly refers to the earnest couple as “Jesus freaks.” Although it doesn’t quite reach all of its lofty expectations, Grace is still an engaging production that will have audience members carefully examining their own belief system long after they’ve left the theater.