Dramatists and screenwriters have such a fascination with serial killers that one sometimes wishes a moratorium could be placed on the genre. Such a restriction seems especially necessary after viewing Michael Cristofer’s formulaic “Amazing Grace.” In a play that might have appeared radical two decades ago (which is about the time most of Edward Gilbert’s hackneyed staging devices would have seemed current), the author of “The Shadow Box” spends too much time drawing attention to the work’s self-imposed sense of artistic and thematic gravitas. A strong star turn from Marsha Mason does not save the evening.
This ensemble-driven and intentionally episodic drama (which, surprisingly, won a major award from the American Theater Critics Assn.) is concerned with the nasty doings of a woman who has a propensity to kill folks with rat poison. Basing his work on a real-life case, Cristofer introduces us here to one Selena Goodall (Mason). Over the course of a couple of hours, Goodall bumps off all manner of people (her parents, her lover, old folks, babies) with a few sprinkles of rodenticide.
Naturally enough, this kind of antisocial activity soon lands her in trouble (although it takes an awfully long time for anyone to catch on), and, ultimately , Goodall finds herself on death row — where she claims to have repented and acquired powers to heal.
As is typical in plays of this type, Cristofer is at pains to point out that the antiheroine cannot accurately be understood as one-dimensionally diabolic. Au contraire, she is a sweet-hearted and likable soul who goes about her murderous ways with a genial attention to detail. After making the predictable point that evil is not so simple, Cristofer also wishes us to understand a little about why this simple-hearted woman feels the need to wreak such havoc.
The play is strongest in the rare instances when Mason is permitted to paint her character in some detail — her interactions with the marvelous Bethel Leslie (as Esther and Belinda) are among the evening’s most compelling moments. Yet this play seems so full of extraneous and utterly unbelievable minor characters (fortune tellers, an absurd prison PR representative) that its societal implications are buried.
The show is staged here in a familiarly minimalist style (no set, folding chairs, actors sitting on the stage) that’s not about simplicity for its own utility but about drawing attention to the director’s, well, talent for simplicity. It’s trite, dated, and it does not help the play.
Unlike some of the other players, Mason avoids looking down on her rural character, and creates a credible, intriguing portrait of a murderer. Most of the other actors are at least competent. But this script (formerly produced at the Pittsburgh Public Theater) needs to lose some of its inconsistent stylistic contrivances and explore in a more vibrant and contemporary fashion how and why society produces these gentle monsters.