Lights Rise On Grace
Stageworks, 1120 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.
Through Oct. 25, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.
With just the actors’ talent and the viewers’ imagination, live theater can take us anywhere. The remarkable new play now at Stageworks, Lights Rise on Grace
, successfully taps both these elements to tell us a story of love, loss, and (a kind of) redemption.
Although Chad Beckim’s play doesn’t transport us to any exotic locales, it does take us from an urban high school in New York City to a dreary prison and then back into town with a minimum of furniture and props, and with only a semi-abstract backdrop (designed by Frank Chavez) that could represent a home, a jail, a castle.
What we witness with the help of these few elements is a story about a young Asian-American girl who falls in love with a black man, loses him when he goes to prison, and then has to decide how to proceed when he’s released six years later. We also learn what that man experienced in prison, and the difficulties he has afterwards.
On a nearly bare stage, the three actors — Jessica Stone, Aaron Washington, and Alexander Craddock — bring us this sometimes lyrical, sometimes coarse tale with so much persuasive skill, we feel, at the end, as if we’ve watched not three actors in a nearly empty space but 15 or 20 persons in a dozen locales. And the experience has been created so seamlessly by the actors, under the superb direction of Karla Hartley, that only a few minutes have seemed to pass.
This is extraordinary theater.
Playing Grace is Jessica Stone, who looks like your pretty kid sister, the one who you hoped would never find out about life’s harsher side. But find out she does — and Stone’s Grace, with her large eyes and slender frame, seems dangerously tender, a fragile bird always about to break a wing.
Because of this, Large’s attention to her at first appears suspect. But as played by Aaron Washington, this Romeo has no ulterior motives: he’s gentle and sympathetic and authentically in love. Admiring him, we have to feel distress as he encounters the many abusers in prison life, from the hatred-spewing guards to his predatory fellow inmates. And we’re just as confused as he is when bearded Riece, played by the very talented Alexander Craddock, attempts to befriend — or seduce — him.
Craddock’s Riece is a complicated, contradictory male, part victim, part victimizer, tougher than Large, inured to prison savageries, but capable also of a certain steadfastness. Riece’s complications become all the more prominent when he and Large return to freedom, and Large returns to Grace.
has a defect, it’s probably that most audiences won’t find it relevant to their own lives and loves. Straight or gay, most of us haven’t faced these characters’ challenges, so the drama can appear as an interesting case study and no more. Still, playwright Beckim enlists our caring from the first moment, and his play’s technical brilliance should be reason enough to give it a look.
It turns out we’ve been carrying a theater with us all our lives — the one called our imagination. Thanks to this fine production, Lights Rise on Grace
fills that space with vivid shapes and colors, proving again that live theater can go anywhere — and show us anything.