An Embarrassment of Acting Riches in “The Book Of Grace”

There’s been much to celebrate since live theater’s full-throttle return to Houston. Premieres, local work, excellent creative efforts on and behind the stage -the thrill hasn’t merely been that we’re back, but that we’re back and cooking with a full kitchen once again.

Even still, the argument can be made that finally, thanks to The Book of Grace, onstage at Catastrophic Theatre, we can fully exhale and rejoice in the resurgence of the magical power of theater.

To be clear, credit for this hard-earned euphoria doesn’t go to The Book of Grace itself, Suzan-Lori Parks’ explosive yet ultimately weightless story of family trauma, violence, and revenge. This sigh of joyous relief rests fully on the shoulders of the superlative Luis Galindo and Patricia Duran, two actors dearly missed and eagerly anticipated.

That we get them together in one show, reaching new heights even for their enormous talents, is almost too overwhelming to process. The wait, it seems, was worth it.

Galindo plays Vet, a South Texas border patrol officer obsessed with keeping the immigrants he disdainfully refers to as “them” on their side of the fence and dedicated to his personal rules of containment.

But while Vet’s beloved fence is a manifestation of his bigotry and nationalism, his need to be controlled and controlling belies a far darker motive. You see Vet has started fresh. He’s leaving the past behind. Setting out on a good foot this time.

His new wife, Grace (Duran) can surely help him with this. Sunny as the yellow diner waitress uniform she wears, Grace lives for the positive in life. “Looking on the bright side doesn’t cost nothing” she often chirps.
She’s even convinced Vet to invite his estranged adult son from a previous marriage to attend a medal ceremony honoring her husband’s service.

But when Vet’s son Buddy (an emotionally fluid Bryan Kaplún) shows up, it becomes clear that neither Vet’s new footing nor Grace’s positive outlook are crystalline. But then Buddy’s visit is far from simple as well. This isn’t a patch-things-over-with-the-old-man house call. Damage has been done. Damage is still being done. Some we’ll understand, some remain opaque. The question is, will revenge be on the horizon?

Parks take the fence metaphor to heart when drawing her characters in this show, giving us distinct villains and victims. One side or the other.

Problem is that this leaves us with little to take away from her writing. More problematic is that Parks paints Grace as the ultimate victim with nothing to offer us but her suffering. Female as ultimate casualty, true as it may be, is hardly a narrative thought provoker.

The Buddy/Vet arc fares better. Will the son be ruled by the father? Will he become him? Will he destroy his father and himself in the process? It’s a far meatier proposition, and Kaplún, with his lopsided grin that alternates between vulnerability and menace, slow burns his way into a crescendo of a performance.
But there’s no question this is Galindo and Duran’s show. So much so that the play’s shortcomings are mere footnotes to the whole experience.

The last time we saw Galindo at Catastrophic, he showed his prowess as the brutal alcoholic father in Sam Shepard’s dark dramedy, Curse of the Starving Class. In Book of Grace, Galindo returns to brutality but there’s nothing remotely funny about the barely anger-repressed Vet.

Galindo almost levitates off the stage with thrumming tension. Is he trying to keep it together or is he just waiting for when he can lash out? There’s a sense of danger to Vet that Galindo dangles in front of us, quickening our breath every time he takes the stage.

When he finally does explode, it’s with such ferocity we worry for Galindo’s health. Not that we should, mind you. Earlier in the show, Galindo shows off just how fit he is by going toe to toe with the much younger Kaplún in a whirlwind of challenging calisthenics. Any mid-career actor who can belt out wordy dialogue while doing that many pushups and crunches has obviously been living right.

Kudos for this beautifully crafted scene, one of the few lighter moments in the show, must go to the co-direction of Jeff Miller and Luis Galindo. It’s hard to tell in a joint directorial effort who is responsible for what element, but in this case, it seems that the pair have concocted a winning partnership.

Palpable pauses and silences are allowed to hang menacingly. Monologues have ample unrushed room, resulting in deeply meaningful mini-plays for each character. Miller and Galindo throw muscular elbows at this script, making room for far more than the play can actually promise.

But when it comes to more in the utmost impressive way, it’s Duran that’s the revelation. Often cast as tough-talking or composed, here Duran shows that we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her already immense talent.

Grace may choose to live on the sunny side of the street, but it comes with a good helping of understandable dread. Outwardly she’s Vet’s champion and Buddy’s encourager, but secretly, she catalogs her thoughts diary-style in a secret book she’s writing (illustrated elegantly by Tim Thompson’s video projections). A book that on the surface seems filled with trifles like “evidence of nice things” or uplifting stories she collects from newspapers.

But just watch how hard Duran tries to convince us that Grace is fine. That these happy observations fill her with hope. Then spot the nervous flighty nature Duran channels. And how confusing it is for us to transition from bathing delightedly in Grace’s perky and astute entry readings (which honestly could have kept our attention the entire play) to revealing the tragic nature of her need to write at all.

When Grace tells us that she spells out her curse words so as not to upset the inner child she’s been told we all harbor, our hearts melt for her. When she finally does swear forcefully, our melted heart is too damaged to even break, it simply disintegrates. Duran takes us on the journey and it’s an utterly masterful performance.

Theater is back folks. There have been many talents to crown already. Praises to sing. And there will be more to come. But at this point in the season, it’s hard to imagine anyone topping what Galindo and Duran have accomplished in this show. No complaints here if that’s the case.

The Book of Grace continues through April 24 at MATCH (Matchbox 3), 3400 Main. For more information, visit Pay What You Can, $35 suggested.