Review: ‘Say Grace’

Playwright Gary Leon Hill leaves behind his customary gritty urban milieus and gets lost in the heartland with "Say Grace." Evidently heartfelt, this pleasant but muddled family story hasn't yet found a dramatic center, rendering its sum impact slight.

Playwright Gary Leon Hill leaves behind his customary gritty urban milieus and gets lost in the heartland with “Say Grace.” Evidently heartfelt, this pleasant but muddled family story hasn’t yet found a dramatic center, rendering its sum impact slight.

A messy initial series of short scenes sprawls all over the map, setting the confused tone Hill never quite shakes. We gradually glean that Llewellyn (Howard Swain) is driving cross-country to his Nebraska childhood home, which he hasn’t visited in some 20 years. He hopes Grandma Dottie (Abigail Van Alyn) is still there — and she is, living alone despite physical frailty and fast-enveloping senility.

The first act crosscuts between this current road trip and memory fragments. We get snippets of Llewellyn’s ’60s activism, his youthful flirtations with cousin Emma (Jeri Lynn Cohen), and Grandma’s own acquiescent yet troubled marriage to long-dead patriarch Swain (John Balma). “Lou” is curious about this stern, mysterious grandpa he never knew. But just why that history compels him is never clear.

After intermission, things get simpler, as Llewellyn settles into nursing his bedridden grandmother. Their rapport is warm and gently amusing (if a mite cute at times); Lou finds himself in the care-giver role. Still, the focus remains shifty. “Say Grace” ought really to be about Dottie, who gave her whole life over to a husband whose stiff moral front proved hypocritical, and alienating to her own loved ones.

As protagonist, Lou stays oddly sidelines, his apparent midlife crisis vague at best. What is he looking for on this sojourn? Why did he give up a filmmaking career? What has he been doing since? Why is he separated from his own wife and child? Lou’s hitchhiker-pickup Bruno (Ronnie Dee Blair) and Emma are even more tentatively sketched, despite the performers’ admirable attempts at filling in the blanks.

Indeed, all the actors are quite fine in David Dower’s comfortably paced production. They can only get so far, however, with a scenario pulling in too many indefinite directions. Hill sometimes saddles them with excess-dialogue “poetics” and ponderous repeat phrases. In general, he does get the rhythm of rock-solid Midwestern speech down nicely. It’s the bigger picture that’s missing — one that designer Jeff Rowlings’ starry night backdrop can’t provide alone.

“Say Grace” is sweet-tempered, sometimes wry, and it offers a good narrative or two in seedling form. The desired depth of poignancy behind these slightly “lost” lives, however, will require some rewriting. Tech contributions are appropriately low-key.

Say Grace

Production

SAN FRANCISCO A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Gary Leon Hill. Directed by David Dower. Sets and

Crew

Lights, Jeff Rowlings; costumes, Cassandra Carpenter; sound, Scott Koue; dramaturg, Cath Clark; stage manager, Denise Santisteban. Artistic director, Mame Hunt. Opened, reviewed Jan. 24, 1995 , at Magic Northside; 154 seats; $ 23 top. Running time:1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

With

Ida/Dottie ... Abigail Van Alyn Swain/Sky ... John Balma Bruno ... Ronnie Dee Blair Opal/Emma ... Jeri Lynn Cohen Llewellyn ... Howard Swain
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