‘Lights Rise on Grace’ at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia

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Lights Rise on Grace is a play that has a lot to say about race, sexuality and secrecy, but says it sparingly. Chad Beckim’s play depicts three characters who reveal a lot to the audience in speeches while keeping those facts from the people in their lives. Beckim gives his characters room to grow, and Azuka Theatre’s thoughtful, low-key production gives the characters room to breathe.

Bi Jean Ngo and Ashton Carter. Photo by AustinArt.Org.
Bi Jean Ngo and Ashton Carter. Photo by AustinArt.Org.

Grace (Bi Jean Ngo) is a shy high school student who gets brought out of her shell by her gentle first love, Lawrence (Ashton Carter), nicknamed Large. Together they brave the forces of prejudice (she’s Chinese-American, he’s African-American) – but just as their romance is heating up, Large disappears for six years. Grace doesn’t know what’s become of him, but we do – he’s in prison. There he gets instructed in the ways of prison life by Riece, a white prisoner who has been toughened by his time inside. When Large gets released, he restarts his relationship with Grace, but his relationship with Riece comes to dominate his life in ways Grace fails to understand.

Lights Rise on Grace is filled with short, terse scenes that jump back and forth in time. Little is revealed about the characters initially – for instance, it’s quite some time before we find out why Large and Riece are in prison – but eventually the audience is let in on the whole story. The structure allows two of the characters to move from cynicism to innocence and back again, while moving in very different directions. And while the two men share a secret, Grace has secrets of her own, ones that the two men never suspect.

Beckim’s play suffers in the way it relies on clichés for its premise: you’ll see familiar scenes of prison life (and prison sex) you may recognize from gritty TV dramas, while Grace’s strained relationship with her unyielding Chinese immigrant parents feels old hat. But while the play’s background feels well-worn, its characters are vivid and its approach to relationships feels fresh. The perspective shifts regularly, allowing the triangle to be seen from all sides. And Beckim uses recurring phrases that have different meanings when used by different characters in different contexts, a shrewd and artful touch.

The rich language and the distinctive characters make Lights Rise on Grace an involving experience. And Director Kevin Glaccum’s production moves smoothly back and forth in time without a moment’s confusion. The three actors all rise to the occasion; Ngo’s Grace turns hard without turning mean, and Carter gives Large a noble decency that never diminishes even as his character betrays those around hm. And while Riece is ostensibly the least sympathetic character, Conallen gives him a touching humanity as, through flashback, we discover the tragic circumstances that shaped him. Conallen’s deep, rough voice also makes for a nice tonal contrast with the higher-pitched voices of his co-stars.

Colin McIlvaine’s set consists of a plain platform with a series of chain link curtains that give the play a gritty look and allow for efficient scene changes.

Keith Conallen and Ashton Carter. Photo by AustinArt.Org.
Keith Conallen and Ashton Carter. Photo by AustinArt.Org.

Azuka’s production of Lights Rise on Grace is part of a “rolling world premiere,” organized by the National New Play Network, which allows for plays to receive productions in various regional theatres over the course of a year. This gives up-and-coming playwrights crucial exposure as well as the chance to revise their plays over several months. Beckim’s play had productions in Washington, DC and Florida before arriving in Philadelphia.

Running Time: 90 minutes,with no intermission.

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Lights Rise on Grace plays through November 22, 2015 at Azuka Theatre Company, performing at the Adrienne Theatre – 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 563-1100, or purchase them online.

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