It is heart-warming that, in these “worst of times,” playwrights like Carey Crim are working quietly to give us a look at new beginnings with humor and tenderness and hope.
Morning After Grace by Carey Crim. Directed by Regge Life. Staged by Shakespeare & Company Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, through July 15.
By Roberta Silman
Morning After Grace is a charming play that initially seems to be a romantic comedy set in a gated community in Florida. But, by its end, the script turns out to be about longing and loss and betrayal and hope. That dramatist Carey Crim manages to achieve all that in the space of less than two hours is testament to her good ear and nimble use of language, as well as her compassion for her three characters, whose affection for each other is also noteworthy and welcome. These days, everyone on stage seems to be after one another, either playing games of one-upmanship or indulging in active dislike: think of all those family reunion plays which seem to conclude either in chaos or some kind of maudlin hugging. So it is a pleasure to eavesdrop on the lives of Angus, Abigail, and Ollie, who are all truly likable, each in his/her own way.
The set-up is both unusual and ordinary. A woman named Grace has suddenly died; her husband Angus discovers she was having an affair when he gets access to her cell phone. Suddenly, their apparently happy life together is tainted. To assuage his grief, Angus becomes tipsy at her funeral and picks up Abigail. When the play begins they are sprawled out on the couch in his apartment after their delicious one-night stand. Into the mix comes Ollie, Angus’s neighbor, who was also Grace’s friend and who knows Abigail because she is the local therapist. Since Grace’s lover was a person whose name begins with O, confusion ensues about Ollie’s role in this mess, but it is sorted out in interesting and moving ways. Ollie comes out to Angus and back stories emerge.
As Crim peels back the layers of these ordinary lives, the audience is reminded, as only happens when a play is good, that there is no such thing as “an ordinary life,” that these three characters all have baggage that is unique to them. And that it is Grace, ironically, who holds them all together in a weird but very effective way. The dead are always with us. In order to move forward, as Abigail would say, these characters need to stretch their minds and hearts in ways they have not done before.
Watching these three actors do just that on the intimate stage of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is a reminder that theater can be important and uplifting. Corinna May has a sly wit and a way of delivering her lines that is utterly engaging, and Kevin Vavasseur made Ollie a fully rounded character who faces his cowardice by doing more than just keeping his chin up. I suspect Steven Barkhimer is also wonderful, but on the day that I saw Morning After Grace there was an added wrinkle. Barkhimer had taken ill at the last minute, and the Artistic Director of Shakespeare & Co., Allyn Burrows, played the part of Angus “on book,” as theater people say, shuffling a sheaf of papers as he looked at his lines. This was the first time I had ever seen this, and I must say Burrows did it so seamlessly and naturally that at first I thought Angus, a lawyer, was simply consulting papers that had to do with Grace’s death. When I realized what was happening, I, and several people around me, were amazed at Burrows’ skill. He was a terrific Angus, conveying the figure’s conflicting emotions. That he could pull this off impromptu only added to the theatrical pleasure.
The set by Patrick Brennan, the lighting by James W. Bilnoski, and the costumes by Stella Schwartz are also first-class. I especially loved the glimpse of Grace’s closet and Abigail’s reaction when she looked in and then slipped on one of the dead woman’s dresses. Which brings me to Reggie Life, whose direction infuses this production with considerable gravitas and range. I was intrigued by his remarks in the program on how he understood Grace’s presence in this play, and why Crim may have chosen the name Grace for the dead wife. Life asks, “What does Grace really mean? To me, Grace is a second chance. Grace is that lubrication that helps you move through life in a more productive way. By grace we get to start again. Nothing ever ends, everything opens the door to a new beginning.” I also found myself wondering if “Morning” is also a pun; perhaps Crim is asking us to look at what “mourning” really means. That sense of possibility is what makes the script so fascinating.
It is heart-warming that, in these “worst of times” in our country, playwrights like Crim (who has written several plays that have been produced around the country) are working quietly to give us a look at new beginnings with humor and tenderness and hope. Surely, that, in itself, is cause for celebration during these dark days.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is available on Amazon. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.