Michael Harney’s The Awful Grace of God, presented by Go the Distance Productions, is an evening of six one-act plays that deal with three forms of death in the first half, and then lightens up in the second with family violence, unrequited love, and existential despair. There is some serious, well-acted drama going on here, the kind that furrows the brow and makes one lean forward in order to get closer to the action, and also, it must be said, to better hear the occasionally soft voices of the players.
Set in 1972 and played in front of a brownstone building in Flushing, Queens, Off is a two-character play. Joe (Curtis Belz), a Viet Nam vet with a bum leg, drinks beer with his war buddy, Stan (Bechir Sylvain). Joe is relentlessly bitter, while Stan, well dressed and free with the cash he earns as an enforcer, knows that his trajectory is an ever-escalating stairway to woe. Their banter is fraught and agitating, yet reveals an underlying bond that only those who have been there can truly understand.
On the front porch of a cabin in the woods in present day New England, Surrender deals with an older couple (Tim DeZarn and Janine Venable) coping with the death of their son. The cold of late fall or early winter bring them huddling together while conflicting desires push them apart. Although clearly loving each other, they merge and clash like waves at a beach. Each one communes with their lost son as if he were literally standing before them, which seems to ease their despair.
A present day motel room is the setting for Willie and Rose. Rose (Agatha Nowicki), a woman who has been around, is shacked up with Willie (Johnny Whitworth), a handyman who suddenly comes home to the room with a satchel containing a hundred thousand dollars. Rose is freaked out by what he has done to obtain the cash and their conflict soon turns physical, which evolves into passionate lovemaking. Their love is powerful and could prove lasting, save for the entrance of Infini (Joseph Bongiovanni).
The Long Walk Home is a searing drama of booze-driven domestic violence. It is 1950 in New York City and Joe (James Harvey Ward) has stumbled home stewed to the gills. His wife Kate (Amelia Jackson-Gray) has some friends over, Dee Dee (Rebecca Lidvan) and Charlie (Daniel Litz). The couple flees the apartment after Joe hugs Dee Dee so enthusiastically it turns into a lustful grope. The lovely Kate pleads with Joe to stop drinking, which only brings out the violence that is unleashed by liquor. Even stern talking by his parents (Tim DeZarn and Janine Venable) can do little to nudge him off the path of destruction.
A conflict between a writer and his therapist lightens the evening with Need (Shelter from the Storm). Francis (Ilia Volok) feels hollow after his parents died one after the other. He questions everything baring his soul to therapist Katherine (Marie Broderick), then suddenly declares his love for her, violating the strict limits on the relationship between therapist and client. What starts out dramatically evolves into broad, delicious comedy.
The capper of the evening, Through, is a conundrum. A large, three-foot high square pedestal is wheeled out with a man, Zip (Oscar Best), bound by chains and ropes to a pole. He is dimly lit and obviously in some agony, writhing and drooling. With projections of swirling clouds and occasional flashes of lightening in the background, a cacophony of voices (Daria Argiro, R-J Seikaly, Alexandra Vino) torments him. The projections change as the hostile voices subside and the calm cadences of a female voice (Janine Venable) express impossible opposites and self-cancelling statements. That the actor who is bound to the pole in chains and thick rope is a black man is unsettling, inevitably calling to mind the horrors of wretched abuse visited upon African Americans in the not-so distant past. The whole scene is profoundly disturbing. I think that the playwright intends to convey the internal monologue of a man working through a painful existential crisis to a hopeful conclusion.
The Awful Grace of God is compelling theatre. The players are expert and the direction by Mark Kemble keeps things moving, if occasionally at a glacial pace. With limited space with which to work, the set design by Joel Daavid is excellent, greatly enhanced by the superb projections of Fritz Davis. The show runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 7pm through May 28 at The Other Space @ The Actors Company, 916A North Formosa Avenue (between Santa Monica Boulevard and Willoughby Avenue in the CAZT Complex), in West Hollywood.