LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE presents three cleverly interconnected survival stories about the complicated nature of life, love, and family. Unfortunately, these stories and their characters rarely reach beyond stereotypes.
Grace and Lawrence—or “Large”, as he prefers to be called—have their first awkward meeting in high school. They fall in love and seem to find happiness despite the challenges presented by their culturally and ethnically different backgrounds: Grace (Bi Jean Ngo) comes from a Chinese-American family while Large (Ashton Carter) is a part of the African-American community. Love conquers all until Large’s violent attack against his brother lands him in prison for six years. (The attack has moral implications about his character that get completely ignored, presumably it happens because it’s needed for the plot.) Large chooses not to inform Grace about his prison sentence until he gets out six years later, causing distraught Grace to go through a difficult time of her own. While in prison, Large meets Riece (Keith J. Conallen), who helps him navigate the prison environment, which in turn becomes a pivotal moment in all three characters’ lives.
Chad Beckim’s script has a clever structure, but the ideas of cyclical events, interconnected lives, and time jumps turn gimmicky when the plot contorts to conform to them. The situation is not helped by characters who are stereotypes occasionally bordering on offensive. The actors do what they can with their material, but particularly Bi Jean Ngo as Grace isn’t given anything other than the role of a prop, and the stereotypical Asian character and background she has to portray get cringeworthy at times. LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE seems to have been written by someone with great interest in, but superficial knowledge of, different cultural identities.
Keith J. Conallen as Riece and Ashton Carter as Large do good work and hold the play together until the end when everything just gets very, very confusing. Most of what the audience is told about the characters goes against the ending, which seems to come out of nowhere. The play has a tendency to deal with one theme at a time almost episodically, and then completely forget about that idea for the rest of the play. For example, the racial tension depicted at the beginning of the play disappears just when it is about to get interesting and never gets mentioned again. This serves to confuse anyone waiting for any kind of a closure at the end.
Directed by Kevin Glaccum, Azuka Theatre’s version of LIGHTS RISE ON GRACE is a well-staged and well-acted production of a not-so-good play with interesting ideas that the playwright can’t quite turn into credible drama.
[The Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street] November 4-22, 2015; azukatheatre.org.