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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Graces: A new play by Hannah Verdon

Or: The One Who Tripped the Fall

Pardon me, dear reader. It seems so counter productive to try and pin down The Graces, to label and pigeonhole a play about the impossibility, the immorality, of labels and pigeonholing. Its peals of pain, alarm, sweetness and hopeless are still ringing in my ears. There are a lot of plays that follow the same footpath of the Graces: “School trouble plays” on scandal, basic cruelties, the burning sparks and drowning depths our youth subjects us to, the basic messages always being “Don’t be cruel, don’t be stupid”. But none of the many I have seen quite burn like this, none have quite its intelligence or rolled-sleeves desire to slip into murky waters and paddle around.

On the night before the Indiana State Primary Mary Whitacre (Meghan Stanton), a straight talking no-nonsense business woman and hopeful state senator, talks to an unassuming young volunteer running over her crucial televised speech covering lower taxes, more jobs and “something about the dead girl”. The dead girl in question is Grace Patterson, a typical high school senior who fell into a cruel and vicious scandal when she sent a rather revealing picture to her then-boyfriend Jeremy (Clinton Roper Elledge). This morning Grace painted her last picture in blood and three ounces of lead on her bedroom wall, and her death bears some mentioning. But Mary’s plans are interrupted when the girl, Grace* (Taylor Dabbah) reveals herself to be the ghost of Grace Patterson. She is joined by three other Graces, each representing a distinct identity of the girl who died : Grace ~ (Alison Mahoney), Grace (Olivia Probetts) and Grace (Isabel Thompson). Together they have come to share their story with the one person who might be able to help some future girl shrug off the same fate, but first they have to tell Mary their story and show her why Grace Paterson took a phone to her mirror and a gun to her head.

Described as having “the demeanor of stage manger and the mind of mad scientist”, Verdon’s main triumph in her already deeply heartfelt and absurdly complex drama is keeping the various “identities” of Grace rooted in one recognizable girl, while at the same time developing each identity with their own victories and insecurities. While the negotiations between Mary and Grace “Biquadrate” sometimes feels artificially prolonged (even though Mary’s reluctance to help is well founded) the remembrances of Grace’s budding and then wilting courtship with Jeremy are as authentically sweet and awkward and awful as any of those sad and hopeful interactions ought to be. And the introspective monologues (usually such pesky, slow things) where a Grace bears her soul for Mary to see the scars and the hope that was snuffed are where Verdon really hits her stride.

Director Sammy Ziesel does an upright job of energizing the reading, drawing focus from one reality and dust-sheeting another. He takes particular care arrange his flock of heroines into dynamic groupings hitting out clear visual notes of dissension, allegiance, and despair. He makes especially good use of his polaris Mary, who’s directs the energy of the piece in its own right. It would be easy to overbalance Mary as the brusque and unhelpful authority figure (which, to be fair, she has a certain flavor of). But this is is no Christmas Carol, and Mary is no Scrooge. Stanton keeps Mary’s unhelpfulness reasonable as she deals with the ghosts, her lacerating wit sharp rather than cutting, and her growing realization of her part in Grace’s death a slow unfurling rather than a sloppy rush.

Mahoney matches Stanton’s swipes and swings point for point, holding onto Grace~’s rational command, while slowly losing hope that this haunting exploit will do any good. Thompson throws herself head first, fully embracing Grace ;)’s zesty passion for life, her love of her body’s power, but still showing the odd flickers of doubt that this live fast, die young, love lose and speak freely philosophy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dubbah triumphs with her portrayal of the rather enigmatic Grace*: quiet but resolved, edgy but polite, trying as hard as she can to make peace with herself (hard enough, especially when “herself” is also three other conflicting actresses) and the last, unwilling ear to hear her voice. But strong as all these are it is Probetts fall of Grace that is perhaps the most gripping. She brings a high quality, infectious stress and heartfelt heartbreak to a young woman trying to fit the mold, love G-d and do right by everyone, and corral the other, more rebellious pieces of her soul back into line. As she persecuted and shaken to pieces by her own guilt she keeps whimpering, to herself and her selves, the formula with no evidence: “you are loved, you are loved, you are loved”.

Like Mary, “I don’t remember being on fire” when I was eighteen, throbbing with life and a desire to let that life run free. But I do recall trying to splice the many outlooks of the world and the expectations of what the world wanted me to be into one serviceable rope. That is the greatest gift Verdon can offer audience, the understanding of those turbulent years, joys of youth and the absolute h-ll of it too. This is a hard play, but watch it closely, because attention must be paid.

Warning: contains strong language, disturbing content and nudity.

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