Running each Thurs., Fri., and Sat. through Oct 28 at 7:30 p.m. and Sun. Oct. 15 at 2 p.m.
PURE Theatre at the Cigar Factory
701 East Bay St.
Religion isn't just habit-forming, it can be downright addictive. One hit of an appropriate Bible passage can snare susceptible types for life. But those scriptures should come with a wealth warning. The Bible classes may be free, but it won't be long before the collection plate gets waved under your nose, and a business deal based on faith alone is a hell of a risky one.
While a pious high is not to be sniffed at, the Monday morning comedown isn't always pretty — and as the amazing Grace reveals, hymnal junkies who misplace their faith don't take well to cold turkey.
Steve is a true believer, a "prayer warrior," who lives in a heavenly apartment, all white drapes and cream leather furniture. He's just scored a major hotel renovation deal with an unseen tycoon who has promised to wire him $18 million Swiss francs. Feeling a great rush when he realizes that his prayers have been answered, he shares his uncurbed enthusiasm with his wife, Sarah.
While Steve is out spinning a flimsy web of financial deals, Sarah's left at home to befriend her mourning neighbor, Sam. This NASA programmer is a "thinker, not a believer" recovering from a car accident in which he lost his wife and his looks. Life goes on even after such an emotionally scarring event, and Sam must deal with visits from the exterminator, an extended stay in tech support hell, and ever-more-frequent visits from Sarah, who takes the commandment "love thy neighbor" further than most.
As Sam, Johnny Ali Heyward gives an incredible performance. This guy can make sitting at a laptop or hanging on the phone look fascinating, and when his character is placed in uncomfortable situations the effect is enthralling.
Never one to pick easy roles, Sharon Graci has some tough moments to pull off here. Sarah launches into a strangely self-absorbed story right after her neighbor has poured his heart out to her. Although subsequent events help justify the monologue, it's still the weakest moment in the show. Still, Graci does what she can to make this transition seem less awkward.
R.W. Smith's Steve is by turns blithe and bitter, and the actor handles humor and soul-searching with equal ease. Ross Magoulas plays the wry pest controller Karl, who is reminiscent of Clarence the angel from It's A Wonderful Life, with his white uniform and the way he catalyses some events. But Grace is no Capra-esque feel-good piece.
But author Craig Wright does include some cinematic elements. He begins the play with the shocking end of the narrative, then rewinds the scene and starts from the beginning. There are cuts to black and fades to white, and the pace is tight thanks to an ingenious use of the single set. The actors occupy the same stage while living in their own apartments, helping to develop a running theme of the illusive distance between human beings.
Ex-hotel developer Wright's best trick is to lead his characters down avenues of redemption, getting the audience's hopes up only to dash them with a wrong turn that the protagonists choose to take. Director David Mandel picks up on enough of the play's nuances to keep the audience engaged — and cautiously optimistic — right up until the final moments of the show.
It's easy to get complacent about PURE's constantly top-notch productions, but a renewed focus on acting and strong material has meant a tangible improvement in quality for this season. Grace is the best show we've seen from this ensemble in a long while, so now's a great time to get hooked on a strong dose of uncut contemporary theatre.