Saturday, September 29, 2007

Grace


Photo: Owen Carey

Third Rail Repertory Theatre
September 28, 2007; closes October 27, 2007

Fearless. Complex, challenging material and a craftsman’s eye for detail continue to distinguish Third Rail’s work. Probably their most ambitious production to date. Not an easy story to tell or accept, Grace’s echoes keep ringing beyond the curtain. Sound design of static and buzzing energy perfectly frames otherworldly suffering, searching.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

WOW. Tough show. Leif Norby and Damon Kupper are stellar actors (I think we all already knew that, though). Not quite sure what the playwright's goal was. To blast Christianity? Great. Yeah, all Christians are pushy idiots. That's what so many people want to believe. Well, it ain't true, folks. And it's really tiresome to see Christians get ridiculed 24/7 in this town. Have a little respect, PLEASE. How would YOU like it if someone started shouting down everything you ever said just because you were an American, or an Oregonian, or a thespian, or a Portlandian? Please, give everybody a break.

John said...

I don't really understand how Anonymous 10/09 came to the conclusion that the point of "Grace" is to "blast Christianity." As a Third Rail member (though I'm not speaking for the company or the team behind this production), I think that if the message of the play were that simplistic, we would never have chosen to do it. Yes, one character is an evangelical Christain who is tying his faith to a money-making scheme. From what I've observed, this is not unheard of. The character of his wife follows her Christian beliefs to bring comfort and solace to a desperately unhappy man, and then leads this man (an agnostic) through a prayer "in the name of Jesus Christ," which leads him to some kind of spiritual crisis (perhaps awakening). That prayer scene is one of the most moving in the play -- and I don't see a bit of satire in it. I think "Grace" gives even-handed treatment to a very, ahem, thorny subject.

Nonny Muss said...

Yes, Anonymous, but how many Americans, Oregonians, thespians or Portlandians insist that being such is the only way to live, and if you elect not to be that, then you are, in their view, condemned to hell?

Well, maybe some Americans. But those people should be shouted down as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, agree that 10/9's comments seem to be wide of the mark.

Blasting Christianity surely was not Wright's goal. If you know anything about him, you know that he comes from an intense religious background - one he has not repudiated.

Not to say that he is necessarily religious today, but he comes to this material knowing a lot more about it than you might think.

Clearly the key challenge of staging this play is to NOT come off as satirizing or making fun of Christians, and I think Third Rail definitely succeeds in that regard. There is no poking fun at believers here. Is there poking fun (not really the right word for this play) at humans going on? Of course.

Wright succeeds because he makes the religious beliefs seem so understandable and weird at the same time that you are drawn in - as if you are hearing them for the first time. This is akin to the conversion experience the wife describes. Who wouldn't like to figure out how the universe works and how to align yourself with good fortune?

I did not see this play as an indictment of Christians by any means. In fact, as far as the god stuff goes, the play is relatively light on it. We situate the two as born agains right away, but really we don't go a whole lot farther into it than that. And the wife's faith comes to seem more and more suspect or at least non traditional - i.e., personal - as the play goes on.

So I don't see any shouting down going on here. In fact, I would suspect that the prayer segment brought tears to the eyes of quite a few atheists, because it is such a moving depiction of that visceral search to find meaning in our lives. Those days when you are brought to your knees and there are no answers.

If anything, the play is much more critical of American capitalism than religion.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but the excessive use of the phrases "Jesus freak" and "f***ing Jesus" were really trying. I understand trying to emphasize the different beliefs of both the Jewish insect-exterminator and the character of Sam from Sarah and Steve, but isn't there a limit? Perhaps the rest of the audience was okay with it, but it was tough for me.

No one has touched on the point that the character of Sarah in actuality did not stay true to being a Christian. Neither, of course, did the character of Steve. They were used as 'examples' of Christians, but I think it should be addressed that though all people mess up (even Christians), Steve and Sarah made really bad choices, which they should have known were not congruent with what the Bible says or what Christians know from following Jesus. If your marriage is failing and you love another man, you should explain this to your husband, make some sort of attempt to rekindle your marriage, and if that fails, go through the divorce process without contempt. Then you can be with the other man you love. Running away from your husband and refusing to even be near him anymore is not the answer. Also, with Steve--if your wife is being unfaithful, the answer is not to kill her and her lover, as well as an innocent bystander, and then commit suicide. If you are a firm believer in and follower of Jesus Christ, you should turn to Him and wrestle with your problems through prayer. Not meaning to be a preachy fanatic, but I'm just trying to show how these characters were not fair examples of Christians.

Unfortunately, there ARE too many Christians like Steve. The greedy, money-lustful, deceitful, selfish Christians that can be found on those Christian TV stations. This is something that saddens me. Those guys give all Christians a bad name and then if you say you're a Christian, people immediately label you as one of the sterotypical "Jesus freaks." This is one of the things that troubled me about this show. Some of the things that Steve and Sarah said, and the attitudes they had were very sterotypical and didn't seem appealing to the viewers. That bothered me.

One particular incident in the show was especially troubling to me. In the prayer, when Sarah is saying it and Sam is repeating it, Sarah says, "Please forgive me for the ways I've failed you, and I'll forgive you for the ways You've failed me." Sam says, "Really?" Sarah says, "Yes, really." That incident showed me that the character of Sam was probably more wise and innocent than Sarah. He understood that God hadn't failed him, so he was baffled to hear that that was part of the prayer. If Sarah was a true Christian, she would've known that God does not fail people, even if they think He does. Again--not trying to be preachy, just trying to make a point about the play.

Also, what was that strange bit about the picture of the girl that the guy at her Bible camp said he had "raised from the dead"? That was weird, and I didn't see what the point of having that in there was.

All that said, I think that Third Rail's production was the best that any theatre company could do with the given play. I still have my objections and problems with Wright's play, but I will admit, the production was superb. Very artistic. Fabulous actors.

Anonymous said...

You know, a brief "spoilers ahead" warning would be very useful, and prevent some of us from having our enjoyment of the show reduced before we've seen it.

Tom said...

agreed

will said...

Disagreed. You are reading a blog comprised of comments regarding shows. If you don't want your experience "reduced," refrain from reading the opinions beforehand.

I personally take no offense to anonymous and his/her concerns...I am looking forward to watching Grace to see if it as stereotypical as claimed.

Ben Waterhouse said...

I think the "forgiving god" prayer is the most insightful and touching moment in the play. You can say that god doesn't fail people all you like, but when a believer goes through terrible tragedy (like, say, watching a loved one get decapitated by an orange juice truck), they can sure feel betrayed by the almighty—especially if they believe in the prosperity gospel. Getting back into grace (wouldja look at that!) with god involves forgiving him/her/it for everything that's happened to you. After all, he/she/it knew it was coming. You could write volumes about this. Many have.

I also disagree that the exterminator is intended to be an entirely sympathetic character. If we cheer him on in his "Jesus Freak" jeers, that has more to do with our attitude than Wright's. Here we've got a guy who's completely given up hope and caved to cynicism. Given his body of work, I don't think Wright's much of a cynic, and he's certainly not a nihilist.

Finally, who's to say what makes a true Christian? Given the wars that have been fought over the question, I think it's safe to say that we can't really answer it.

Anonymous said...

yeah, will, there's comments, and then COMMENTS.

Just tell us if you're gonna go all plot specific.

Not a hard task.

will said...

I respect what you are saying anon. I am saying that I have the mindset that if I read a review, particularly a blog from the audience, it is almost inevitable that someone is going to say something that I wish I hadn't of read before experiencing the play. It's your only real control over the issue.

You can ask people not to blab, but they are people and people usually do, and the responsibility is still yours.

By the way, if you didn't already know, Harry Potter s- ....ah, nevermind.

Tom said...

For the record, im not saying don't say anything about the plot. I am saying if you are going to go into major plot points, then following the standard of writing **Spoiler Alert** doesn't seem like that much to ask.

This is a pretty common thing.

Tom

will said...

Ben, haven't seen it yet, but I appreciate your balanced opinion before the fact.

You should strongly consider writing professionally.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ben. Perhaps for the Willamette Week? :)

Ben Waterhouse said...

That rag? Not on your life!

will said...

Yeah. Probably best.

Anonymous said...

Why read this blog if you haven't seen the show yet in the first place? I think the extremely strong opinions shared in this blog would be a spoiler in itself to viewing the play(s) with fresh eyes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Anon 12:29. That's absolutely right. This blog is for AFTER you have seen a show, and your thoughts and feelings having seen it. So if you decide to read it beforehand, you can't get mad that people put 'spoiler' comments on here. I don't think it's necessary to make it all picture perfect for people that, "Oh yes, I'm going to be talking about the show now, and stuff that happens in it." I mean, if there are COMMENTS on the SHOW, then that is kind of a duh that people will be giving plenty of spoilers. I thought it was pretty obvious.

Anonymous said...

now we are seeing some sanity on here.

Anonymous said...

Yes, much thanks, Anon 1:03. Finally, somebody with a brain and a good attitude.

will said...

Far be it from me, but it seems as though it is not much of a good attitude to (not so subtly) suggest that everyone prior to anon is without a brain. People disagree, doesn't make them stupid. An unfortunate characteristic of our culture is the demeaning of those who don't share the same views.

Getting back to Grace, there is a forum meeting regarding the show and the themes it covers this Sunday at 6pm in PSU's Studio Theatre in Lincoln Hall.

followspot said...

Great discussion.

Re: anon 10/11/2007 05:46:00 PM.

Note: The exterminator (Doug Mace) is NOT Jewish. That’s actually pretty important in the context of his childhood story from Germany, i.e., by not being one of the officially persecuted enemies, his suffering at the hands of the Germans is even more puzzling and meaningless.

As far as “staying true to being a Christian”, I don’t think Wright sets off here to evaluate how well any particular character lives up to some official yardstick of Christianity. I don’t think that is what he is after. He is not analyzing how correct anyone’s beliefs are. Basically if you say you believe in God, then you are religious in the world of the play. If you say you are a Christian, you are. He doesn’t second guess his characters or get into who is a “real Christian”. If you say you are, you are.

Also, I don’t think these characters are meant to serve as examples or archetypes. They are all utterly unique individuals. They are not Christians or atheists, they are people.

Did Steve and Sarah make bad choices? Steve’s faith in Mr. Himmelman turns out to be a mistake, but it seemed like it would work at the beginning. Of course Wright is cleverly likening Steve’s faith in Mr. Himmelman to his faith in God. It seemed like a good idea at the beginning, but as things deteriorate, how long can you hang on and keep repeating the official lines when they aren’t working? He wants to believe that Mr. Himmelman has his best interests at heart, and that he is doing things for a reason. Why won’t he call? Why won’t he do what he said he would do if Steve believed in him?

On the marriage thing, it’s not clear whether Sarah loves Sam or whether she has been unfaithful. In some ways, it would be simpler if they had an affair. But did they? She says at one point “We haven’t done anything.” And she says she is not against Steve, but she is not with him any more.

Is Steve “greedy, money-lustful, deceitful, selfish”? Maybe. What does he really want? Do you picture him as someone who wants to own nine cars and smoke cigars on the golf course? Or is he instead drawn to the idea of doing God’s will, which happens to involve real estate? It’s very seductive for Steve to feel his earthly success manifests God’s will.

I would argue that the two believers are NOT stereotypical. Somehow they are too odd and hard to place. They don’t fit into easy categories. If there is a weakness in the play, it is in convincing us that these two ARE real believers. We see no organized religion at all. There are no scenes of church or group worship. All we see are the couple. And I had the feeling they were interpreting a lot of their beliefs to fit their needs. What they describe in their monologues feel closer to spirituality than religion. The feel very homegrown.

Based on your reading of the two believers, it would seem that the term “Jesus freak” IS appropriate for them. I mean, if these two aren’t Jesus freaks, who is? Not to say that the supposed perfect Christian is a Jesus freak, but these two may be. The term is meant to be funny. So in fact all your criticisms of their lives would seem to indicate that they are in fact more “Jesus freaks” than Christians. Wright assumes his audience has the intelligence to know they are not seeing the supposed perfect Christians on stage. A Jesus freak IS a stereotype. What is a Jesus freak? Someone who references Jesus in the same sentence as real estate deals…

For me the prayer sequence was not about Sam realizing that God had not failed him. He believes God HAS failed him, but is surprised to hear that Christians believe God can fail them. As you point out, that is NOT part of the official, traditional Christian dogma, so he is wondering what the heck is going on.

Re: “If Sarah was a true Christian, she would’ve known that God does not fail people.” Given the specific experiences that Steve and Sarah have gone through, exactly HOW would they know that God does not fail people? You could argue that all they have experienced is God failing people. Given their lives, how would they know what God not failing them feels like?

Same with Sam. And Karl. It’s one thing to be told in the abstract that God does not fail people, but once you as a specific person are experiencing suffering, how do you KNOW that God does not fail people? You can keep repeating that phrase. But when things get bad enough, does it work? To paraphrase, with success like that, who needs failure?!

How, in the face of the terrible events that these people have experienced, would these characters know that God does not fail people? Where would that knowledge or belief come from? And importantly, Wright is making his characters ask that question not from the top of the world, but from the bottom a la Job, in desperate circumstances, where what they are experiencing seems to be evidence that God DOES in fact fail people. Brutally. All the time.

The brilliant corner Wright backs us into in this play is that if you believe God does not fail people, you must also believe that Mr. Himmelman does not fail people. So, see what Mr. Himmelman does, and just know that Mr. Himmelman does not fail people. He doesn’t. He never does. Ok, Steve? Mr. Himmelman does not fail people. Ok? Exact same thing as saying God does not fail people. So what do you do? We see what happens as Steve holds on to his faith in Mr. Himmelman for too long. Did Mr. Himmelman fail Steve? Or to address Steve with one of his own lines: “Do you not see God’s grace working in that story?” The ending of the play tells us that Steve does not see how God’s grace is working in his life.

The picture of the girl was Sarah’s conversion moment – her “seeing the face of God” if you will. It was at that moment that Sarah’s participation in the bible school outing went from a social activity to a true religious experience.

Ben, the issue of nihilism is an interesting one. I kinda DO feel Wright is a bit of a nihilist, though it’s not clear cut. Seems like the trick in a lot of his plays is balancing fate and free will.

Saw this show again the other night. It’s phenomenal. Just deciding to do this show is impressive enough. But doing it well is priceless! You won’t see this play performed hardly anywhere else. Don’t miss it.

Looking forward to the Sunday discussion at 6 PM in PSU’s Studio Theatre!

Brian said...

Seeing this show was an intensely personal experience for me.

You see, I lived through a lot of this play.

Hello. My name is Brian. And I was once a fundamentalist Christian. (Not for nothing, I'm also from Minnesota. Craig Wright is stalking me.)

The thing is - I think Wright's portrayal of these characters is dead on. I sat there in the first scene, listening to people laugh as Steve talked about his faith. And I was thinking "No - you don't get it. They really ARE like that. It sounds funny, these things he's saying, but that's what they believe. That's what I believed."

It was very true to life. And I'm sorry if that offends some people out there. But the true people of faith I know, they wouldn't find this offensive. Because they, too, know that there are people like that out there.

Nobody said all Christians are like that. But some of them sure are.

Anonymous said...

I saw Grace a week ago, and was also moved. I did not find it to be a comment on any particular stereotype. I found the characters very real.

This great script seemed to me to be a touching comment on the shared human experience. Like Sam, we are all trying to find our way through the dark toward meaning. Like Steve, we are all prone to oversimplifying the complexities of our lives in an effort to understand why we're here. Like Karl, we have all had cause to question who we are and what we do, and while we believe we are essentially good, we know we are capable of evil acts. And like Sara, it tends to be the little things in life that capture our hearts and imaginations, and bring us hope.

The message, for me, was that it is only through love that we can feel close to God, or our best selves. Only love makes us feel worthy after the rest of the world is done with us. When we have love in our lives, we can believe in grace. When we don't, we can be reduced to our worst selves.

My favorite character was Sam, not only because Norby's portrayal was heartbreakingly beautiful, but also because he was so multi-dimensional, blending the most interesting and diverse human qualities, all at the same time. His profanity did not seem to me to be a reflection of his anger as much as a reflective shell that protected a hopeful but despairing soul. He wants to believe -- he just doesn't want to be a sap. And he isn't sure he has a right to believe for the reasons he explains in the prayer scene. This role needed Mr. Norby's innate capacity for intricately layered performance. Very impressive work.

This play was like reading a good book. It stays with you. Everyone involved was top notch. Thank you to all the performers and crew for touching so many so deeply.

shuttergoddess said...

"For me the prayer sequence was not about Sam realizing that God had not failed him. He believes God HAS failed him, but is surprised to hear that Christians believe God can fail them."
I took it as Sam being astonished either that she had experienced something for which she felt god had failed her and/or that she could forgive something that counted as a failure by her god.

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian and when I saw it, I actually wasn't too offended, because I saw the play as focusing on certain types of PEOPLE, not stereotypical Christians or whatever. I saw Steve as an arrogant and selfish PERSON, Sara as a weak PERSON, Sam as a hurt and needy PERSON, and Karl as a bitter, but very hurt PERSON. I did not see them as stereotypical "Jesus freaks." I actually liked this play. How often do you see something like this? Because I realized by the end, that these are not stereotypes of different religions--they are unique, struggling people, and this was their story. That's how I saw it, but I was wondering how someone who is not a Christian saw it? I wonder if you saw it as such, or if you thought it was meant to be negative towards Christians (as someone above posted, "blasting" Christians). Interested to hear further feedback....

Anonymous said...

I would also to like to hear feedback RE: Anon 11:28's post. Anyone?

Gary Roberts said...

I think this show has already been forgotten, as everyone now focuses on the new, cool, "in" shows. This one's too old to talk about anymore, apparently. Shame. It is so worth talking about....