Grace, a British import starring Lynn Redgrave, is blessed with a couple natural dramatic conflicts: losing a child and summoning faith when one has always been without it — sufficiently complex issues which, in the right hands, might make for a gripping story of regret and redemption. Too bad co-authors Mick Gordon and AC Grayling have rendered these problems into an evening of absurd polemic. Their approach is to construct a meticulously-worded argument between a scientific lady who thinks religion is society’s poison and a religious guy who thinks there’s more to life than science.
As an Oxford lecturer and a “famous atheist,” Grace is resolute in her conviction — through trial after trial and the erosion of her family — that religion is moronic and mostly evil. When her son, Tom, a lawyer in his thirties, announces his intention to become an Episcopalian priest, she goes predictably bonkers, and a mother-son argument of apocalyptic proportions erupts. Tom’s pregnant girlfriend reluctantly takes his side. Grace’s husband takes no side at all.
How Grace got to be an Oxford don, let alone a professor of philosophy, is itself an idea that requires an enormous leap of faith. Her pedagogy is far from plausible. Throughout the play she presents dozens of detailed historical and empirical examples supporting her argument against religion, from wars to slavery to terrorism to brain science. Without some believable background to sufficiently explain her unswayable anti-religion zealotry, Grace is a tyrannical heroine, a misguided monarch whose fall from power is inevitable. “It doesn’t matter that you’re right,” Grace’s husband, Tony, tells her after their son breaks the news. “It doesn’t matter at all… he’s finding his own way.” Well, duh. That should pretty much settle the argument for everyone in the first five minutes, especially since their son is no zealot. His approach to God is as pragmatic and non-antagonistic as could be. Still, for Grace the idea of finding one’s own way doesn’t sink in for at least another 90 minutes. When at last she realizes she’s been foolish, after a tragic accident and an even more tragically executed funeral, her monumental breakdown is a climax too long in coming.
Redgrave demonstrates her incredible verbal skills here, which is fortunite because the play certainly puts them to the test. One almost feels there’s a game going: to take a great actress and see how many words she can handle in the space of 90 minutes while still being emotionally vulnerable. Thankfully, Redgrave is one of few stage actresses smooth enough to pull this off. The unbroken hour and a half held my attention honorably, largely due to her mastery over some rich (albeit overwritten) language, and a convincing performance by Oscar Isaac as her son, Tom. Philip Goodwin adds some needed warmth as Tony, though his character is little more than a cipher, a vivacious old gent used to break up the ideological debate with a few bawdy jokes.
The set has a blunt, institutional feel, with tables, chairs and walls all in gray and a sterile wash of white lighting. There is no calling for such sterility in a play governed entirely by ideas. Despite one or two encouraging outbursts, the play’s stance is defiantly academic, with philosophy trying to pass itself off as controversy at every turn.
The few attempts to layer the four characters with psychological background feel forced and off-base. Though scenes of past and present merge, and the story unfolds out of sequence, the script and direction never complicate things enough to offer a viable emotional life outside of Grace’s grieving journey.