Play poses questions it fails to answer

`Falling Grace' cast outshines confusing plot

August 12, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

By all accounts Grace Williams should be dead, the victim of a parachute that failed to open properly on her first jump.

Somehow, though, she comes through unscathed, and therein lies the central dilemma of "Falling Grace," the Mark Scharf play in production at River Hill High School in Clarksville under the auspices of the Directors' Choice Theater Company and the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

Is the young woman's survival a matter of sheer luck, or has she been delivered miraculously from death by the grace (get it?) of God.

Everyone begins to see what they want to see in Grace after her near-death experience. To the local pastor, she becomes Exhibit A in support of a God whose willingness to intervene directly in human affairs is part of the promise of ultimate salvation. To a woman dying of cancer, Grace becomes nothing less than a saint whose very touch harnesses the healing power of God. And to the cancer sufferer's high-strung son, Paul, Grace's reluctance to access God's healing power could place her immortal soul in peril.

Pity poor Grace. Buffeted by her brush with death and by the strange and powerful perceptions of her now held by others, she doesn't know what to think. After spending a couple of hours with Grace last weekend, I could sympathize because I didn't know what to think either.

That is a problem with this play. For, once you say, "Yes, God does suspend physical laws to perform intercessory miracles," or "No, God doesn't," or you throw up your hands to say, "Who knows?" where do you go from there?

The minute these three positions are articulated by their proponents on stage, the characters are stuck with questions nobody can answer. Meaningful debate is hemmed in from the get-go. The actors have precisely the same argument in Act II, Scene I, that they had in Act I, Scene I. If anyone truly experienced a life-changing epiphany on the subject, I must have missed it.

The playwright is better at posing questions than he is at enlightening us about them. What he does give us, though, are some engaging characters brought to life by a talented, energetic cast.

Deborah Elizabeth Striegler enters adeptly into Grace's innocence and overwhelming sense of doubt. She spins out an especially good scene with Kevin, her intended, played by Gareth Kelly, in which the couple confront the toll Grace's ordeal has taken on their relationship.

What little comic relief there is comes from Donna DeVilbiss, who is irreverent, if not downright naughty, as Grace's sister Liz.

The script tosses more than a few cliches at Joan Corcoran, who plays Grace's mother, but there's nothing hackneyed about the maternal affection emanating from her. Corcoran also is very effective in the plot twist that brings the play to its unsettling conclusion.

Stephen Namie is unctuous to a fault as the minister whose predictable bromides are the last thing the angst-ridden Grace needs to hear. Steven King is downright spooky as the disturbed young Paul, who may understand Grace's predicament with far greater insight than his menacing demeanor lets on.

It was still early in the run Saturday, but technical matters could have been more settled. Dialogue in the opening scene sounded stilted, and Southern accents shouldn't be allowed to substitute for intelligible diction.

The metaphysical discussion failed to enthrall me, but character and performance did come through in the end. The play might not be the most amazing "Grace" imaginable but, in the end, it is worth seeing.

"Falling Grace" runs weekends through Aug. 22 at River Hill High School on Route 108 in Clarksville. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Reservations: 410-419- 5247.

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