Swampland in Florida 

Grace is amazing at Circuit Playhouse.

Onken and Howard as Steve and Sara

Onken and Howard as Steve and Sara

Steve, the violent, disillusioned businessman at the heart of Craig Wright's Grace, doesn't put much faith in knowledge. "I'm not a knower; I'm a believer," he says, compulsively witnessing to a potential business partner, praising the Lord with only the slightest hint of moral superiority. Unfortunately for Steve, who's played with searing intensity by Christopher Joel Onken, the business deal goes south. But Wright's play about faith, real estate fraud, and multiple homicides couldn't have been better.

Steve's a character we all know a little too well. He's the kind of God-drunk know-nothing we encounter all the time in real-life media reports about needlessly controversial things like climate science or Planned Parenthood. He's the guy quoting scripture in newspaper articles about Creationists vs. Cosmos. He's also a stand in for every true-believing conservative Christian politician who's ever been caught in bed with a live boy or a dead girl. But, thankfully, he's not just that.

Zealots are an easy target, and putting a prayer in Steve's mouth and a gun in his hand would be too easy for an author as inventive as Wright. And there aren't many easy choices made in Grace, a time- and space-bending noir that challenges audience expectations at every turn. It's a 90-minute nail-biter, and director Teddy Eck's no-nonsense production at Circuit Playhouse is worth getting excited about.

Grace tells the story of Steve and Sara, a young evangelical couple from Minnesota who met in a Bible study group and who end up playing a key role in the murder of Sam, a disabled NASA scientist, and Karl, an elderly exterminator who knows many stories, all of them sad. Steve and Sara are prayer warriors, sincere in their belief that capitalism and Christianity are basically the same thing and that God has brought them together because he wants them to be both happy and rich. Although they are broke, the couple relocates to sunny Florida, the state most famously associated with swampland scams and gullibility, to pursue Steve's dream of opening a chain of Christian-themed hotels with the help of a mysterious foreign investor who never makes good on his promises.

It's no spoiler to say that nothing works out as planned. Grace is an extremely theatrical experiment in suspense that's virtually spoiler-proof. The play begins at the story's tragic ending with the lights fading up on a corpse-littered stage. Then it comes to life like a film played backward with dead characters rising up from the ground at the sound of a gunshot to say a few ineffectual last words to the gunman before retreating pathetically backward into lives that are already over. The play, in other words, is as transparent as Andrew Mannion's scenic design, where two discrete apartments are represented by the same floorplan.

John Maness proves once again that he's one of Memphis' most reliable character actors. This time around, Maness takes on the part of Sam, a NASA scientist who was horribly disfigured in the car wreck that killed his wife. Sam is a natural skeptic, but he's also a broken man who needs something to believe in. Over time, he comes to believe in Sara, the woman who turned to him innocently enough for companionship as her husband sank deeper and deeper into debt and delusion.

Morgan Howard is heartbreaking as Sara, a woman who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that she's trapped in a loveless marriage and treated more like a servant than a partner.

Unfortunately, we will never know what stage veteran Jim Palmer might have done with the role of Karl, an exterminator who lost his faith as a child following an unpleasant encounter with Nazis near the end of WWII. Palmer took a bad fall prior to opening and was replaced by the always excellent Michael Gravois whose commitment to detail quickly makes us forget he's too young for the part.

Grace is the word we use to describe God's unmerited love. It's the name we give to thanksgiving prayers and the period in business before fines are levied against those who have failed to make timely payments. Aesthetically speaking, it's the word we use to describe forms and functions that are as effortless as they are refined. It's hard to imagine that the playwright didn't have each of these definitions in mind when he named his work. The Circuit Playhouse cast certainly gives each one a real workout.

Through May 4th.

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