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Review: TheatreLAB's "Grace"

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In TheatreLAB’s engrossing, occasionally overwrought “Grace,” faith grows inside a person like a plant. For some, it lies dormant and neglected until a small sprinkle of hope causes it to sprout. For others, it bursts forth strong and proud but then withers when oversaturated with pride. For the characters in this intimate drama, the course of faith can be enlightening or devastating.

To enact this profound journey, director Deejay Gray has cast four accomplished actors who anchor a show that sometimes seems intent on spinning off into lofty theological notions. But when grounded in simple human emotions and interactions, this production is as moving as anything you’re likely to see on stage.

“Grace” charts the course of a devout Christian couple, Steve and Sara (played by Alexander Sapp and McLean Jesse), who have moved from Minnesota to Florida to open a chain of Gospel-themed hotels. Both their neighbor Sam (Nicklas Aliff) and their thoughtful exterminator Karl (Eric Dobbs) are resistant to the fervor of the couple’s faith, having suffered ruinous losses that have left them scarred in different ways. But as Steve’s business dealings go awry, the dynamics between the players shift, guaranteeing an eventual conflict.

Two theatrical devices complement the action. The show’s first scene depicts the end of the story, then rewinds to the beginning. So anticipation about how that final scene will play out underlies everything that happens thereafter. Also, the play’s set represents two identical apartments so there are often scenes happening in two places but they overlap on stage. It’s a testament to Gray and his cast that this clever conceit translates as clearly and seamlessly as it does.

To heighten the intimacy, Gray has staged the show in the round with one row of seats completely framing the set, so audience members sometimes find themselves inches from the action. Using the blank canvas that the show’s industrial location provided him, lighting designer Michael Jarett developed a varied palette to enhance the production. Unfortunately, the location presents some other technical challenges as interference and noise in the sound system proved a consistent annoyance.

That distraction did not hinder Gray’s cast. The production showcases the burgeoning talent of Alexander Sapp who has been an entertaining secondary character in many great shows around town. Here he steps to the fore to deliver a bracing performance, giving Steve a dynamism that tips over into fanaticism too easily for his own good. Aliff and McLean explore the delicate process of establishing connection with a charming awkwardness. The play’s script wants to push them into melodrama but they hold back admirably. In particular, Aliff, who can be an intensely physical actor, restrains his physicality to give a quieter, focused performance. Dobbs only has a couple scenes but he provides a steady counterpoint to the main players.

“Grace” was written by Craig Wright, who gained notoriety for his work on the TV series “Six Feet Under” so he’s no stranger to stories that confront life’s big questions. While issues of faith propel this story, it’s illuminated by the timeless quest to find love.

“Grace” appears through April 5th at RVA Event Space, Zero East 4th Street. Tickets and information are available at theatreLABrva.com.

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