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‘Grace’ Beyond Saving

Craig Wright’s play, Grace, currently on Broadway at the Cort Theatre [1], should be a better play than it is. It wants to take seriously the proper place of faith, both how it helps us and what kind of psychological risks it poses to us, which is a big topic not-often-enough broached in the contemporary theatre. But it refuses to get close enough to its central character to honestly explore the torment his soul is put through, and the solace offered him–by the other characters and by the playwright–is cruel enough that I wound up feeling his ultimate resort to violence was more logical than it ought to have been, while also being less emotionally-believable.

That central character, Steve, played with nervous energy by Paul Rudd, is a born-again Christian who has just traveled from Minnesota to Florida with his wife, Sara (the somewhat opaque Kate Arrington) with a plan to open a chain of gospel-themed hotels. The play is set in the height of the housing bubble, when every real-estate-driven dream seemed at least plausible, but Steve’s plans, it quickly becomes clear, don’t have a prayer of coming to fruition. His financing doesn’t come from a bank but from a shadowy Swiss “investor” who’s big on telling him to sign but not so big on sending checks. No matter–Steve has faith, and if you have enough faith, blessings will come. They have so far. And, of course, they don’t. And Steve needs to figure out what to do when his world unravels.

What he comes up with is: kill all the other characters in the play. That ending, by the way, isn’t a surprise. One of the gimmicks in the play is that it opens with the ending, then flashes back (actually, rewinds, then flashes back further) to the story of how we wound up with all these dead bodies. It’s a cute gimmick, and it’s fun watching the actors trying to “play” their lines in reverse order, but it’s just a gimmick. It ties in, thematically, with Steve’s desire to rewind his own life, to “go back” to a point in his life where things still made sense, but second-guessing his own decisions isn’t the heart of Steve’s crisis, which is part of what I mean by saying the play doesn’t get close enough to him to explore his torment honestly. More on this later.

I say Steve is the central character, but it doesn’t always seem that way, because Steve’s neighbor, Sam, seizes our attention almost as soon as he appears, and holds it until very near to the end. He does so partly because he is played by Michael Shannon, an actor of incredible emotional power in roles that require him to hold that power largely in reserve. Shannon gives Sam a depth that he probably doesn’t deserve, because his arc is, in fact, a simple and crowd-pleasing one. He’s a man who’s suffered–his wife died in a car crash that was arguably his fault, and that left him with a badly scarred face as well, and on top of all of his other troubles he can’t get any help from Apple customer service. He has no faith in divine providence because of his suffering, but is brought back from those emotional depths through the love of a “good” woman.

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That woman would be Steve’s wife. While Steve is out failing to launch, she’s left at home, with no children to care for and no society but that of the reclusive Sam. It’s not surprising that she turns him into a project, or that the project was successful, or that this success implied a loss of faith in her own marriage. I put “good” in quotes not for any of this, but for an almost complete lack of angst or remorse on her part for her loss of love, and decision to leave Steve for Sam. Steve hasn’t been terribly attentive while we watch him, but when it’s too late he tells us another story about their life together prior to coming to Florida–the ardor of his courtship and his steadfastness as a husband (he talks about sitting with her nightly in the hospital while she almost died). There’s no sign of recollection of any of this on Arrington’s face as she tells him their marriage is over, nor is there any indication in the text. That kind of self-involvement on her part is entirely believable, but it tells us something about this woman’s depth of character.

Does that mean she couldn’t be the agent of some kind of transformation in Sam? Not at all–grace, if we’re going to believe in it, falls according to a will other than human, and has its own reasons. But it makes Sam’s transformation relatively uninteresting, to me, anyway. Sam needed to be loved, to know he could be loved, in order to love again. Sara needed a project. I have no reason to believe what they have found together will truly last, any more than her marriage to Steve did. But Steve’s position, to me, is an interesting one.

He, and not Sam, is the Job figure in the play, the “good man” who is nonetheless cursed by God, losing his wealth, his wife, and even being touched in his person (he develops a ferocious allergic reaction to an insecticide, and spends the second half of the play scratching). He can’t make sense of this, but he can’t make sense of it for a particular reason–because of the transformation Sam attests to. His problem isn’t just that his wife has left him, isn’t just that he’s lost his money, isn’t just that God has abandoned him. It’s that the people who have caused the worst of his suffering are telling him that God hasn’t abandoned them. Indeed, that God has chosen to bless them specifically.

Steve talks about everything he did for his wife, all the devotion he shown, in precisely this light, saying that this is what he finds intolerable: the idea that he did all this for her so that she could save Sam. That, by implication, she’s saying it’s what God intended all along–that Steve would be the instrument to bring her to Florida to save this other man. That decentering of his universe is what he can’t tolerate. He’s supposed to be the protagonist. If God is punishing him, it’s got to have something to do with him. He’s not just an instrument.

That’s the most interesting idea in the play, but the play swerves away from it. Sam and Sara have no answer to him, so the answer comes from Karl, an ancient German exterminator and fine slice of ham played by Ed Asner, whose isn’t so much a character as a vehicle for explaining the universe to Steve. In his first appearance, early in the play, he explains that there is no God, and in the second, near the end, explains that perhaps there is, flagrantly violating Godwin’s Law [2] both times (he went through the war, and both suffered and caused tremendous suffering). His message to Steve, the second time, seems to be: yeah, the universe doesn’t make sense, but extraordinary forgiveness is possible, so that must mean something. Presumably, Steve is supposed to hear this and decide to forgive Sara and Sam.

Except: they aren’t asking for forgiveness. They don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. And Steve isn’t really blaming them. He’s blaming God–because what he’s angry about is the passing of God’s favor from him to Sam. So … who’s he supposed to forgive? God?

I’m probably belaboring the theology too much, but there’s a reason. This play seems to want us to do that. Karl is a vehicle rather than a character; Sara is shallow and unreflective; Sam starts from faithlessness. The character who is a position to reflect on faith in a way that is central to the play’s preoccupations is Steve. His faith isn’t as shallow as it looks on the surface–he was once where Sam is, at the bottom, betrayed by the universe, or at least his parents, looking for something to rely on that wasn’t human and limited; and he found it. The stars spoke to him. That’s the faith that brought him through, and lifted him up, and now that faith has been betrayed. That’s what the play is about. So what is it saying about that situation?

Since Steve responds by killing everyone, it seems to be saying: faith is dangerous. Don’t rely on it too much. “Have a backup plan” as the play’s advertisements suggest. But that’s glib, and anyway it isn’t true to either Sam’s or Steve’s conversion experiences. I feel like what it’s saying is: I don’t know where to go with this character. I don’t know how to bring him through this kind of a crisis.

But, to me, that’s just where it gets interesting.

The play starts at the end, and then rewinds to show you why it had to come to this violence. But I wished that really was the beginning, and that the author’s question wasn’t, gosh, how could a man who relied so much on faith survive when that faith was betrayed?, but rather, how a man who relied so much on faith could survive when that faith was betrayed.

Noah Millman is TAC’s theater critic.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "‘Grace’ Beyond Saving"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 20, 2012 @ 9:23 am

Sounds like just another trite tale of faux fundamentalist theology designed to mock the faith of unresolveable demintia that resides in bible believing christians.

All of these matters seem contrived with the goal of showing the unreasonablenes, especially one so misunderstood, and maligned as fundamentalism.

This an unfair comment not having seen the play — but I can’t help but wonder whether the playwrite has seen any fundamentalist evangelicals up close and personal.

#2 Comment By William Dalton On December 20, 2012 @ 10:01 am

Thank you for this column, Noah. I, too, got up to New York to see this play before Thanksgiving. I had read a review that made me fear that this would be another work rejecting the Christian faith or even failing to come to terms with it too typical of New York theater. However, I left the Cort Theatre pleased with how I spent the afternoon. Steve’s loss of faith was not so disturbing to me, as in the development of the play it could be seen there was little “Christian” in it, particularly, as you mention, it seemed focused upon the “stars”. And the transformation of the other characters, even as Sam and Sarah struggled with their sexual temptation, was gratifying.

But the point you made, that the play was teaching the lesson that, even when we suffer great evil, God’s focus may not be particularly on us, but upon some other(s), I had missed. And it is so very important, particularly now when the nation is once again coming to grips with the question of theodicy in the wake of the Newtown shootings. All we can see today is from the standpoint of the victims of that atrocity – particularly the lives snuffed out at too young an age. We no longer have the faith of our ancestors that for them being taken to heaven is a blessing which far exceeds any they may have known on Earth. We don’t know what good may eventuate among the lives of those of us who survive, who may even be moved by our reflection upon our own lives to make the positive changes that will bring blessings to the lives of many others. It’s what the message of the season classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, would be if the film focused upon the frustrated but fulfilling life of George Bailey as the work of a gracious God rather than simply a celebration of his quintessential American virtues.

Like the character of Karl, my own life has been formed out of the tragedy of Germany that unfolded in the Nazi period. My mother emerged from the war shell-shocked and deprived of her home in East Prussia, as well as most of her family. A refugee from the Soviet invasion and conquest of her homeland, she represented a nation that had inflicted much suffering upon others and had endured much suffering in return. What was the purpose?

She found employment with the U.S. Army of occupation. There she met my father, was married, and found a new home in America. Even so, the horrors of what she had experienced during the war, the interminable raids by British and U.S. bombers, the knowledge of the atrocities committed upon her family by the Red Army, the death of her closest loved ones, haunted her until the end of her life. For me, though, profound realization came in grasping that my existence had depended, not only upon the suffering she and her family had endured, but the very fact of the war itself, with its tens of millions of victims, of the dead, the wounded and the displaced. Nothing less than the world’s worst experience of carnage was necessary to bring my parents together and to bring about my birth. Then I came to reflect that this was true for perhaps a majority of our Baby Boom generation, whose parents came together, not always in so dramatic a fashion, but nonetheless under circumstances which may not have existed except for the war. I still don’t have the vantage point to understand God’s ultimate purpose in all the carnage which the world endured in that late century, but one thing I know – our generation is in no position to question His Grace, or His Wisdom.

#3 Comment By Glaivester On December 21, 2012 @ 10:27 am

We no longer have the faith of our ancestors that for them being taken to heaven is a blessing which far exceeds any they may have known on Earth.

Of course, in many cases the faith of our ancestors would not assume that it was guaranteed that all of the victims went to heaven*, so there would still be a lot of sorrow and anxiety mixed in.

*While many or most today would assume that children all go to Heaven, I don’t think that was the assumption of the Catholic Church or of the Puritans or of a lot of denominations from the 1800s and before.

#4 Comment By Mike On December 24, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

It sounds pretty derivative. The rewinding comes from Kaufman and Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along, and killing people as a business plan comes from Donald Westlake’s magnificent The Ax.