Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Pictured (l-r): Ayssette Muñóz, Amro Salama, and Ashley Neal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Erin Shea Brady
I’m consistently excited by the programming at Rivendell. Artistic Director Tara Mallen and team mine their mission for brave, relevant works that are deep in conversation with the world we live in. Their tagline – “It’s Women’s Work” – rings true in their tenacity, their nerve and their aptitude for telling nuanced stories that serve to humanize and explore polarizing feminist issues and tropes. Karen Kessler’s intense production of ALIAS GRACE is no exception.
This play is a rallying cry, as woman after woman is ravaged by the stigma of pregnancy and abortion in the 1800s. In a time when women are, once again, fighting for the right to adequate healthcare (the performance I saw doubled as a Planned Parenthood benefit), the play’s traumas are less removed and less theoretical than they might have been under the Obama administration. It’s a dystopia, but unlike Margaret Atwood’s popular novel-turned-Hulu-series THE HANDMAID’S TALE, the story of Grace Marks lives in our very real past.
The experience of ALIAS GRACE is very much that of a murder mystery, and the thriller takes an exciting psychological turn. We’re dropped into the plight of Grace (Ashley Neal), a supposed amnesiac held captive who, at sixteen-years-old, was accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper. We spend the first act gathering the pieces to the puzzle, and the psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan (ably played by Steve Haggard) joins us on that ride as he tries to unpack Grace’s past. It’s a captivating journey, but its momentum is inconsistent due to plot points that are introduced without much payoff. The relationship between Grace and Simon is the crux of the play, and fascinating to watch in the hands of these two extremely capable actors, but it’s an unexposed underbelly is a missed opportunity. In a story this complex, unturned stones may be inevitable, and they are a small price to pay for an otherwise gripping night of theater.
As a whole, the ensemble is strong and the actors do well to round out this story. Ayssette Muñóz as Grace’s dear friend Mary Whitney is a breath of fresh air, a much-needed break from the intensity. Her performance is playful and joyous, and it’s easy to see why Grace loves her so. Amro Salama as Jeremiah the Peddler gives a buoyant performance, though his participation in the story eventually leads to some confusion in plot.
The design takes us easily into and out of memory. The use of props (designed by Lacie Hexom) and lighting (designed by Michael Mahlum) do well to guide us through time. But many other design choices fall flat, and are more distracting than informative. In an otherwise cohesive production, I wanted more.
ALIAS GRACE is an imperfect play and an imperfect production, but to seek perfection is to ignore the deeply powerful work that is happening right now at Rivendell. This gripping and captivating production of what is sure to be a classic feminist exploration is well worth seeing. It’s one to unpack about over a drink or on the train ride home, and I’m glad to have seen it.
ALIAS GRACE runs through October 15th. For more information visit rivendelltheatre.org.