Regional presenters won’t be fighting over the latest opus from Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Suzan-Lori Parks. “The Book of Grace” jams combustible elements for drama into a cramped little house on the south Texas border: a sado-masochistic border guard who really loves his job; the body of a first wife buried in the yard; a battered second wife who scuttles around the house jabbering about “the good in the world;” and a prodigal son who returns packing live grenades in his foot locker. But iconic characters never become human, promised violence doesn’t materialize, and the play fizzles out without catching fire.Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) certainly knows the character types she’s writing about, and helmer James Macdonald has cast thesps adept at fleshing out their slender bones. Likewise, Eugene Lee (set) and Jeffrey Sugg (projections/video) put a humanizing face on the trashy ranch house that abuts the border wall with Mexico. John Doman has a rock-like presence as Vet, the gung-ho border guard who views life as a struggle between “Us and Them” and welcomes the “Borders and Fences” that keep the forces of chaos at bay. Parks gives Vet some valid insight into the fears that govern his behavior and strong language to express his obsessions. “Sometimes the alien is right in your own home. Sometimes right in your own blood. And you’ve got to build a wall around it.” But while his own brutality is frequently alluded to, in almost ludicrously sinister tones, Vet doesn’t get much of a chance to display it. Elizabeth Marvel (“Top Girls”) treats Grace with the utmost compassion as she darts around the stage in the desperate postures of a farm animal watching the farmer’s wife coming with a hatchet. There’s a sweetness to the hopeless belief in human goodness that she confides to the feel-good journal she calls “The Book of Grace.” It’s a sensitive portrayal of a battered woman so divorced from reality that she invites her unstable stepson to return home to make nice with his monstrous dad. Amari Cheatom brings youthful vigor and a healthy dose of mature professionalism to Buddy, the dangerous live-wire son who is keeping count of Vet’s sins and misdemeanors, waiting for the magic number that will allow him to strap on his grenade vest. Everyone talks a good game in this talky play, and Parks writes a superior grade of talk. But while much of the gab is suggestive of violence past and present — “I’m gonna blow something up,” says Buddy, who also constantly alludes to certain “unspeakable things” that Vet did to him in his youth — none of it translates into action.
Anspacher Theater at the Public; 275 seats; $70 top
A Public Theater presentation of a play in one act by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by James Macdonald.
Set, Eugene Lee; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Jean Kalman; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; projection/video design, Jeffrey Sugg; dramaturg, John Dias; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Amy McCraney. Opened March 17. Reviewed March 11, 2010. Running time: ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.
Buddy - Amari Cheatom Vet - John Doman Grace - Elizabeth Marvel