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THEATER REVIEW: ion's “Grace” leaves provocative questions for audience to mull over

More questions are raised than answered in Craig Wright’s thorny but provocative “Grace,” in its local premiere through Sept. 10 at ion theatre.

It’s billed as a dark comedy, but in the shocking opening scene shots ring out and people fall. Then the scene is played in reverse. The rest of the play explains how the characters got to this place.

Young, committed “Jesus freaks” Steve (Francis Gercke) and his wife Sara (Rhianna Basore) arrive in Miami, where Steve has gotten a promise on a real estate loan which will allow him to open a chain of Gospel-themed hotels, complete with baptismal pools and Promise Keeper workout facilities.

The first thing they do is pray; after all, this is proof that “God wants it to happen,” and evidence of “the seed/harvest paradigm.”

Next door lives Sam (Nick Kennedy), computer geek and former NASA employee, whose life was upended a year ago in a car crash that killed his fiancee and disfigured his face.

Faith is not in his DNA nor on his radar and he isn’t interested in anybody’s religion; he just wants Sara to stop playing that annoying Christian rock so loud, and to stop trying to “reach out” to him with notes left at his door. He also offers provocative comments about time, space and religion.

Today Sam has another problem. He is in computer hell – the only photos of the last trip he took with his fiancee are disintegrating before his eyes, and tech support is playing tag with his call.

But Sara continues to visit and bring soup, as much from loneliness as solicitude for his soul, and a friendship ensues.

The fourth character, elderly exterminator Karl (Jim Chovick), comes in to spray for bugs. Karl had a serious rendezvous with evil in Hamburg in 1936.

It is Karl who pegs Steve and Sara as “Jesus freaks” when Steve asks him about his church-going experience, which Karl answers with a curt: “There is no Jesus. There is no God. Mind your own business and everything works out.” But Steve can’t let well enough alone, and draws Karl’s harrowing Holocaust story out of him.

Wright draws a lot of psychic and emotional space between these characters; the use of a single-condo set where actions occur in both condos at once is both disorienting and illustrative of their life and communication issues.

Gercke is a wonder of nervous energy and enthusiasm that turns gradually to the ashen, shaken and haunted character of the violent end of the story. Basore is excellent as the steady and kindly – but lonely –Sara.

Kennedy is as good as I’ve ever seen him as Sam, a broken man who comes to regard Sara as his savior. And Chovick, providing both comic relief and the most poignant story, is convincing on both counts.

Melanie Chen’s eerie sound design and Karin Filijan’s lighting lend the right atmosphere.

All but one of these characters will achieve a sort of grace, but the inevitable conclusion leaves theatergoers with provocative ideas to kick around over coffee with friends.

The details

“Grace” plays through Sept. 10 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Saturday at 4 pm.

For tickets call (619) 600-5020 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.