Review: Intense, Texas-set ‘Book of Grace’ at MATCH is well worth opening

by Doni Wilson

Pulitzer Prize-winning and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Suzan Lori-Parks offers an unflinching look at family conflicts in her memorable and intense play “The Book of Grace.” Playing at MATCH, this production from Catastrophic Theatre is a gripping drama set in a southern Texas border town, where the obsession with keeping people in and out mirrors the psychological borders that emerge in a dysfunctional house.

Thematically similar to plays such as August Wilson’s “Fences,” “The Book of Grace” centers on the thoughts of Grace (played by a superlative Patricia Duran), a waitress married to Border Patrol officer Vet (a stunning Luis Galindo), whose mix of authoritarianism and narcissism is an intimidating presence from beginning to end. His threatening demeanor looms even larger in the claustrophobic setting of his home, which includes an old television, a VCR, a kitchenette, an avocado-colored refrigerator and a shabby woven rug.

Although things are “tight,” Grace tries to see the sunnier side of life, writing her thoughts down in an inexpensive composition book, dreaming of maybe even being a published author. Never mind that she has to hide her book, and by extension, her thoughts, from her husband. Her journal is a desperate attempt to see the good in everything, even when it is hard to find. Her chirpy Hallmark card phrases about goodness in the world are the pep talks she gives herself. Her husband’s controlling nature is relentless, making her efforts at optimism all the more poignant.

Part of her plan to up the happiness quotient is to orchestrate a reunion between Vet and his estranged son, Buddy (in an excellent performance by Bryan Kaplun). Buddy has served in the Army, and even earned a medal, but the reason for this reunion is to celebrate his father’s award for the flow of illegal drugs and apprehending people entering the country illegally. Vet can’t handle even the most modest competition with his son, someone he has not seen in over a decade.

Directed by Luis Galindo and Jeff Miller, this production is fueled by the triangular relationship of these three characters and the delayed revelations about their pasts that allow the audience to piece together a tragic and sad family history. As Grace tries to make peace between father and son, Buddy transmogrifies into “Snake,” his dark alter-ego, who keeps score as he contemplates revenge. Buddy’s monosyllabic utterances are contrasted with his moments with Grace in which he has an actual conversation, her kindness so foreign from what he has received in life from his father.

There is a lot of talk about forgiving and forgetting, but the resentments run too deep. Buddy says that Vet has done “unspeakable” things to him, and it’s hard not to believe him. Buddy’s shifts from calm and blank to sweet and hopeful to dark and plotting show a mercurial young man who has never had the stability of a loving home. Kaplun’s range of expressions as Buddy are unforgettable in this play, as are the excruciating nervous moments of Grace and the rage of Vet as he tries to control both of them.

The uneasy dance between Vet (who wants a “line of demarcation” in everything, including the crease in his pants) and Grace (who has “boundary issues”) is an intense experience that carries a high degree of suspense. The third part of this triangle is Buddy’s knowledge of “government” and the Constitution, an ironic reminder of the powerlessness of those governed in this conflicted family.

In this world, nothing is stable. Everything is on a “We’ll see” contingency: so anything can happen. At the same time, Lori-Parks knows how to remind the reader that characters reveal themselves in simple ways, as when Vet, describing himself on border patrol, admits that “Sometimes I don’t see anything.”

It is in these confessions, often given in long monologues by these three characters, that we piece together the vulnerability and aggression that inform the secrets, manipulations and motives of Grace, Vet and Buddy. Grace is a “Wanna Fix It All” in a broken and vengeful world, and this play is a riveting ride through her well-intentioned efforts.

Doni Wilson is a Houston-based writer.