‘The Book of Grace’ is A Timely Exploration of Tension and Hope: Review

Photo by Alex Brenner


Tension runs rife throughout Femi Elufowoju jr’s new production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The Book of Grace, which gets its UK premiere at the Arcola Theatre this month. For a play written in 2010, it’s remarkable just how relevant it is to today’s audience, perhaps more so than back then, given the themes of division and friction which have only amplified in the last decade and a half. The eponymous Grace, played in eternally endearing fashion by the talented Ellena Vincent, lives with her husband Vet (Peter de Jersey), a patrol officer on the Texas-Mexico border who approaches his job with a devotion akin to a religious calling. When Vet receives a medal for his service, Grace invites his estranged son Buddy (Daniel Francis-Swaby) to join them for the ceremony, only for all Hell to break loose when Buddy arrives teeming with resentment and deep-seated loathing for his father. Grace must work to heal the rift, whilst keeping a private document of everything good in her life – the big red book of the title.

Vincent has a job on her hands with Grace, whose positive attitude could easily descend into something more saccharine and one-note. The actor carries the task off with aplomb, portraying Grace not simply as a calming conduit between Vet and Buddy, but as a character embodying the worthy message that there is power in resolute optimism. Whilst she deeply cares about the two warring men whose lives she’s joined following the death of Buddy’s mother, you never once feel like she’s weak – there’s inherent strength in her positivity. It’s a result of her portrayal that the play’s climactic scenes are rendered all the more moving.

Elufowoju jr’s direction is strong, making ample use of the Arcola’s intimate setting. The actors are given free rein to utilise the space they’re in, dispersed throughout the auditorium as the play progresses, ascending and descending the stairways and walkways leading to the stage. Opportunities to plant the actors in the audience are commendably taken, which serve to break the fourth wall and lend some degree of comedy to what would otherwise be a starkly humourless piece. Incorporating the use of a Smartphone as one of the characters indulges in recorded rants only makes the script feel more applicable to 2024, when every phone is a mouthpiece for every delusional, unabridged diatribe. Whilst most of the action takes place in a single setting, we’re effortlessly transported to other locations, most notably to a rain-soaked grave Vet insists on digging which proves a compelling plot device in the play’s second act.

Powerful, biting and astutely observed, The Book of Grace is an accomplished look at a divided nation. Themes of isolationism and nationalism are deftly explored, and while these notions ring true to a number of countries fourteen years after its first performance, there’s no escaping how intrinsically American this play is, rooted in contemporary US culture. What a UK audience, with our own intricately different issues around the complex topic of nationalism, will make of it remains to be seen.

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