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The Grace of Mary Traverse




Pig American Productions

at Transient Theatre

Nowadays the brutality of a play is no liability. If anything it's taken as proof of hard-eyed integrity and unflinching zeal to expose or explore. That's the charitable explanation for The Grace of Mary Traverse (1985), a sprawling, violent, turgid modern melodrama by Timberlake Wertenbaker, author of the Tony-nominated Our Country's Good--another earthy, clumsy spectacle.

Grace is anything but graceful. Mary, the rapidly disillusioned title character, is mercilessly jerked from a cloistered girlhood--where she's taught only to please--and thrown into careers as a gamester, whore, and political firebrand. As it follows these careers, Grace rides an emotional roller coaster as tumultuous as anything Les Miz inflicted on its all-suffering characters (and audiences).

The generosity of spirit of this female Tom Jones almost redeems its excess. Wertenbaker takes her 18th-century protagonist and sends her on a ferocious power trip, a journey that could easily touch chords in a modern audience. But Wertenbaker has written too many plays in one, wearing out our patience.

Judge from the plot's profusions: Mary escapes from the sheltered home of her politically ambitious father, where as his "proudest adornment" she was taught to "leave no imprint on the carpet" and to prepare herself for a fashionable marriage. This proto-feminist hits the London streets with a proto-socialist servant. Eager for experience, Mary watches as Lord Gordon, a foppish and idiotic nobleman, rapes a street urchin named Sophie. Both repelled and tempted by her first sight of lust, Mary buys sex from a studly male prostitute--Mr. Hardlong--who insults her by using her money to pay for sex with Sophie. Though Mary is eager to mix with the illustrious writers she's read--Samuel Johnson, Fielding, Voltaire, Hume--she finds herself literally excluded from their club (Virginia Woolf imagined a similar fate for Shakespeare's hypothetical sister).

With every hard knock she receives Mary craves more for what she's witnessed--men's power to hurt, which they so casually inflict on women and their weaker brothers. If she can't play the submissive virgin, she'll be the exploitive whore--and soon finds herself poxy and pregnant. For company she takes in Sophie, prizing her as a reminder that the meanness of the streets needn't warp the soul.

Challenging men at their own games, Mary indulges in piquet, cock fighting, and in one weirdly hilarious scene, hag racing: two creaking harridans are enlisted in a stumbling contest. Mary's last, infamous stint is as an incendiary leveler; in the name of a new world of freedom and equality, she helps to foment the Gordon riots of 1780, when London mobs hungry for bread sacked the homes of prominent Catholics.

Shielded by her forgiving father, Mary escapes punishment but not guilt. But in the end Mary decides to live in the hope of gaining some grace in a corrupt world. (The ending all but appropriates the "Make Our Garden Grow" finale from Candide.)

Caryl Churchill's Top Girls covered much the same ground: a once-invisible woman is corrupted by her pursuit of male power. But Churchill did it with an economy that this embarrassment of emotions never approaches. Wertenbaker can't find a clean way to tell a messy story. The result: a rambling epic that lurches from crisis to crisis and mood to mood, trying to cover more territory than it has earned the right to judge and spreading itself too thinly for any kind of payoff at the end.

Given the play's abrupt emotional shifts and instant agonies, performing Grace must be like jumping over and over from burning third-story windows into very small nets. It would have taken a miracle for this local premiere by Pig American Productions to hit the mark in every overwrought scene; it's remarkable how often this staging, by Patrick O'Gara and Daniel Sauer, does manage to persuade. Choosing to let the play as a whole fend for itself, the directors concentrate on digging out the truths of each separate scene.

One asset is Lusia Strus's assault on the volatile title role. Strus may not register every single wrenching twist of emotion Mary suffers at the hands of the overachieving author, but her pile-driving emoting makes passionate sense, even when--especially when--the rhetorical onslaught defies analysis.

The other 16 roles, delivered by a smooth 11-member ensemble, benefit from well-coached accents and confident deliveries. These actors mine eloquence from writing that often aims at show. O'Gara plays Mary's respectable father with hapless earnestness, offering a study in passivity that contrasts sharply with Donna Freeburn's seething servant. Ann Jennings delivers Sophie's sorrows without force or guile, as if the sheer purity of pain could redeem them.

As the contemptible Tory demagogue Lord Gordon, Dan Scott combines goofiness with dangerous stupidity; Mel Zellman, as a manipulative, cynical party leader, exudes smooth-faced opportunism. (Zellman has a wonderful voice but needs to hold on harder to his English accent.)

Anyone who saw Remains Theatre's Our Country's Good will recognize in Grace the same passion to reach beyond its grasp. But in Our Country's Good Wertenbaker found a theme--the power of art to console Australian convicts rehearsing a Restoration comedy--that forced her to focus. The diffuse Grace wanders all over looking for a reason to stop; and by the end, Mary is nothing more than the sum of her author's opinions. It's all too easy to leave thinking, so what?

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