‘The Book of Grace’ explores family boundaries, norms

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Suzan-Lori Parks’ play, “The Book of Grace,” premieres at the ZACH Theatre Saturday, setting the stage for other theater companies around the country.

Photo Credit: Kirk R. Tuck | ZACH Theatre

Genre: Drama
Running Time: 120 minutes
For Those Who Like: Death of A Salesman, The Color Purple, Raisin in the Sun
Grade: A- 

Grace looks around cautiously to ensure that she is alone. Crouching to the floor, she gently peels back the corner of a rug to reveal a hidden compartment in the floor and pulls her book out. She begins to read excerpts to an imaginary audience.

Saturday marked the opening night of “The Book of Grace” at ZACH Theatre. Written and directed by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, the play centers around familial boundary and control issues, told through the main character’s self-written books.

The play made its debut in Austin and will be performed by other companies around the country.

The play is set in present day South Texas, where border patrol agent Vet (Eugene Lee) lives with his wife Grace (Nadine Mozon). The story picks up when Grace convinces Vet’s son, Buddy (Shaun Patrick Tubbs), to return home and reunite with his father.

The central conflict revolves around borders and rules: Vet, who is obsessed with them both at work and at home; Buddy, who is trying desperately to break free from his father’s control and create his own life; and Grace, who somehow manages to have no boundaries. Just as Vet is determined to control the border at work, he is consumed with fencing his family in, creating tension between father and son as well as Vet and Grace’s marriage.

Grace lives outside borders and rules entirely, always saying that you can find the good in everything. She secretly writes a book of her thoughts and findings to prove it. This mentality is only partially put into action since she lives with her oppressive and controlling husband.

Buddy represents what happens when someone is pushed down too many times by “the man.” From the moment he arrives home, Buddy struggles with his hatred for Vet and his need for Vet’s approval. He writes a manifesto in an attempt to break free from his father’s rule, despite still seeking his approval therefore giving his father a chance to accept him.

The play is broken up into nine scenes. The acts, which are announced to the audience by Grace, organize the ideas of the play and break up the story so it does not feel too long.

The intimate style of the play creates a personal experience for the viewer. Each character reads his or her own book aloud to an imaginary audience. The entire play takes place in Vet and Grace’s home, with the three characters coming and going from other places in town. Occasionally, the actors freeze while Grace, either from offstage or stepping out of the scene, reads the name of the next chapter or a footnote regarding some conversation she had with Vet before Buddy arrived.

The actors gave equally powerful performances, showing the weaknesses and complexities of three distinctly juxtaposed characters. Lee and Tubbs’ characters share the same explosive personality, yet Tubbs separates himself with his passion and desperation, bordering on anguish. When Buddy begins to film his video log, “The Book of Snake” — the name his father went by during his bad years — he violently shakes his fist in the air as he lists his father’s three strikes, which he calls the evidence of bad.

Although the play delves into emotional themes, when Grace reminds Buddy and the audience that “you can make up your own ending,” she injects just enough optimism and a bit of humor so that the play doesn’t depress the audience.

The play itself is compelling and modern. “The Book of Grace” is a fresh take on the desperation of a family struggling to move forward together, but it’s the intimate layout of the theater that truly elevate the experience to another level. Because each of the characters read aloud to an imaginary audience, the viewer feels as though they have taken on that role and therefore get to become a part of the play.

WHAT: “The Book of Grace”
WHERE: ZACH Theatre
WHEN: June 2 - July 10 at 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $20-35 depending on day
WEB: zachtheatre.org/show/the-book-of-grace