Review: ‘Three Cheers to Grace’ at Young Playwrights’ Theater

An emotionally resonant new play with a distinctly teen point of view.

“They call me a vegetable,” Grace tells us. “They call me a corpse.” In this nimbly comic and deeply moving new play by Josie Walyus, a 14-year-old named Grace is literally in a coma. That’s how all the other characters see her: She suffered brain damage in an auto accident and is thisclose to dead. But in a brilliant theatrical stroke, Walyus portrays her title character fully awake and engaged, actively hearing and addressing everyone who comes into her hospital room, aware of their lives and loves unbeknownst to them. This shrewd dramatic device—which the script sets up and sustains beautifully throughout—has emotional resonance akin to that powerful final scene in Wilder’s Our Town when Emilie Gibbs returns from death to invisibly observe the everyday life she left behind.

In Grace’s case, she invisibly observes and responds to her circle of high school friends, who are a fun bunch, plus a few of their on-edge folks. In the pivotal role of Grace, Katie Rey Bogdan owns the stage with the droll ebullience of a young Nikki Blonsky. She and her best friend Eliza, a smartly spirited Madelyn Farris, were both on their way to swim-team practice when the car they were in crashed. The driver, Grace’s mom, was unhurt, but both Eliza and Grace were left comatose. Three Cheers to Grace picks up five months later, when Eliza has recovered, but Grace has not and never will.

Katie Rey Bogdan as Grace and Madlyn Farris (seated) as Eliza in ‘Three Cheers to Grace.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At the core of the play is the abiding affection between Grace and Eliza, whose friendship has been fatefully interrupted. To that throughline, Walyus connects succinct scenes, ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking, that introduce us to nine supporting characters and their attendant subplots. Much of the pleasure of watching Three Cheers to Grace unfold stems from how cleverly crafted it is, with characters entering and leaving Grace’s hospital room and playing out loosely related minidramas with the momentum and élan one associates with good series TV.

Without giving their engrossing stories away, here’s a who else is who:

Dante, an appealingly animated Tre’Mon Kentrell Mills, takes a shine to Eliza as she does to him. The sensitive way Walyus depicts Grace’s feelings when she realizes her best friend has a new best friend is just one instance of how touching this play gets.

Nurse Rose, given a richly layered performance by Karen Romero, is Dante’s mom. Walyus reveals Nurse Rose’s backstory as an immigrant and the domestic crisis she is in with remarkable wisdom and compassion.

Katie Rey Bogdan (Grace), Sisi Reid (Maria), and Elenilson Ayala (Jamie) in ‘Three Cheers to Grace.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Jamie (Elenilson Ayala) and Maria (Sisi Reid) are an adorably adoring couple, goofily gaga for each other, and it’s in their scenes that Walyus treats us to the silly tensions and instant passions of young love.

Caroline, an absorbingly vivid Naima Randolph, is Eliza’s younger sister, and in her story is a haunting portrait of how it feels to live in the shadow a more accomplished older sibling.

Eliza and Caroline’s mother is seven-times-married Britney Raimond, played by Mimsi Janis on the cusp between tenderness and bravado. Mama Britney, as she wants to be called, is a wonderfully broad comic character whom Walyus skillfully keeps just this side of ridiculous.

Rounding out the play’s parent-child dynamics are Eliza and Caroline’s mom Lilliana Smith (a brittle, high-strung Suzanne Edgar) and their dad Gerald Smith (a sage and stolid Marlon Russ). One can marvel at how many friends-and-family dramas Walyus has woven into this work. And to the extent neurological expertise is required, it appears credibly in the character of Dr. Hines, played with professionalism and purpose by Stefanie Garcia.

Naima Randolph (Caroline), Tre’Mon Kentrell Mills (Dante), Madelyn Farris (Eliza), and Katie Rey Bogdan (Grace)  in ‘Three Cheers to Grace.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Eric Ruffin has directed with evident conviction about this play’s worthiness as a new work. The pace, the stage pictures, the performances, the spacing are consistently arresting. At times Ruffin has actors silently walk about the set angularly like passersby on autopilot as if to sketch for us the harshly institutional environment in which this heartfelt play takes place.

Enhancing that impression is Scenic Designer Timothy J. Jones’s set: cool-plastic see-through walls and upstage cyc on which Lighting Designer Arnika Downey displays boldly colorful scene-change effects. Sound Designer Cresent Haynes accentuates those transitions with chest-quaking rumbles and blips and beeps of vital signs. And Costume Designer Moyenda Kulemeka has clothed the high schoolers like with-it kids and the adults like slightly out-of-it grownups. This is a play with a distinctly teen point of view, and the creative team completely got that.

“I wish I had spoken more,” says Grace late in the play, reflecting on her imminent demise. “I have so much more to say. My story can’t be over yet.”

I haven’t yet mentioned that this noteworthy play was written by a high school student (though the veracity of its teen speak could have given that away). Josie Walyus wrote the first draft in 2018 while a tenth grader in a Young Playwrights’ Theatre program at H-B Woodlawn. YPT then worked with her to develop what has become the first-ever YPT production of a full-length play by one of its mentees.

Judging from the achievement of Three Cheers to Grace, Josie Walyus is going to have many more stories to tell and much more to say. Catch this world premiere now so you can say you knew her oeuvre when.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, with no intermission

Three Cheers to Grace plays through March 3, 2019, at Young Playwrights’ Theater performing at the Dance Loft on 14th, 4618 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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