In The Soul's Code, James Hillman, borrowing from the ancient Greeks, called it the daimon, the presence of a uniquely formed soul that resides within us from birth and dictates the course of our life by attempting to actualize itself. You can call it spirit, destiny or fate, but Hillman's thought is that the process is far from passive; given a chance, the soul can—and will—assert itself and lead us where we're supposed to go.
Margaret Grace Braxton, the lead character in Heather McDonald's extraordinarily compelling and ravishingly well-written new play, When Grace Comes In, probably wouldn't argue with Hillman's concept. Grace knows what she's supposed to be doing with her life: restoring damaged masterpieces of the Italian renaissance.
But her daimon is blocked, stifled by the fact that she's put her work on hold in order to be a Washington, D.C., wife and mother. Her husband is a high-powered senator who apparently loves her very much even though he is continually mired in the never-ending world of campaigning and committees. And Margaret's love for her three children—the fierce 15-year-old Halley; the deeply religious, vision-struck 11-year-old Doune; and the sensitive prodigy-like 9-year-old Claw—is unquestionable.
It's not enough, however. Margaret is slowly losing her grip on herself and her family. Her mother is suffering from Alzheimer's, and Margaret is on the verge of a breakdown. Her children are worried about her, and lately, she has been consumed by dreams of water, of her house in the suburbs coming unmoored, of being washed out to sea. She wakes up alone and feels like she's drowning. There is sand in her mouth, numbness in her hands. She receives strange messages, notes written in Latin by an unseen hand saying a certain threshold has been reached; carpe diem is embossed into the shiny golden paper that her chocolates are wrapped in.
She thinks she's losing her mind, even dying. But it turns out that her illness isn't physically based. As an idiosyncratic Polish doctor (the highly talented Mark Allen Gordon) tells her, her numbness is nothing more than pain in a different form. Finding out what that pain is—and what to do about it—sets this bizarrely beautiful, sharply funny, intensely poignant play into motion.
McDonald has written an elegy of sorts for the dreamers who've put their dreams on hold. But the twist is that Margaret, though possessed of a gentle, delicate nature; a richly poetic vocabulary; and a keening desire to live joyously and meaningfully, is anything but a heroic character. She has backed herself into a most untenable situation: choosing herself or her family. As she asks her husband, not truly expecting an answer, "Have you ever had the realization that one's better nature is sometimes not embodied in the life one has made."
Margaret is tired of being the person who holds other people's lives together. She wants her own life; she wants to be the one telling her own story. Images of mortality and the fleetingness of life bombard her. "We are here so lightly," she says. When she learns that she doesn't have any terminal illness, short of life itself, she realizes that "for 14 days, I thought I was dying. No, for 14 days, I remembered I was dying."
The fact an audience cares so deeply about such a character who'd even contemplate leaving her three young children in order to restore Renaissance-era frescoes in Venice is a testament to the power of McDonald's play. Instead of loathing this selfish, weak character, we feel every trace of her pain. Whether you agree with her final decision may tell you as much about yourself as it does about this play—and that's a huge win by any measure.
The play is made captivating by the grace and power of McDonald's writing and the direction of Sharon Ott. Ott, who helmed the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and is currently the artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theater, is one of the most respected theater artists in the country, and a production like this shows why.
It's pro from top to bottom, and the play shines with gem after gem, thanks to great acting from Jane Beard's exquisitely rendered Margaret to the three child actors who play her children and everyone in between.
But the real star is the lyricism and imagery of McDonald's writing. It shines both in her use of actual language (an old woman on death's door says her hearing is so acute she can hear spiders weeping, clouds sighing and leaves moaning as they hit the earth; elsewhere, McDonald writes an incredibly erotic, poetically stirring account of a woman being finger-banged on a bench in a Manhattan park) and her metaphors, the most obvious of which is water. Water is everywhere in this play. Margaret remembers her father—a fisherman who died at sea—telling her that before there was light, there was water. Belle, Margaret's mother, says that we have more in common with Jesus than with the old "dry God of stars and moons and supreme distance." After all, Jesus wept.
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The water in McDonald's play represents the vast, unconscious pull of an unfulfilled soul, one that wants to grab its host vessel and pull it under, for better and for worse. This also supplies the fascinating conflict of the play: whether she flees from the current that threatens to pull her from her safe moorings or dives headfirst into it.
Not that the play is perfect. The presence of a late-night Washington, D.C., talk-show host is problematic (although Stephanie Berry's acting and vocal timbre is phenomenal), the continual referencing of country music seems curiously out of place—and why is there no use of Hank Williams Sr. music in this play even though he's mentioned some 50 times? More important, the play's ending feels strangely anticlimactic. Loose ends that are tied up seem unfulfilled, and there are many others not touched on.
But those are minor quibbles. This is a piece with a purpose: it instructs us to live fully and honestly. It reminds us of the fragility of life and the importance of treasuring each and every moment. That's a sentiment that many writers set out to dramatize, but few capture it in a play that feels as intensely human and profoundly beautiful as this one. It's that rare gem of a play that makes you proud to be alive and gives you hope for the state of contemporary theater.
When Grace Comes In at the La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, (858) 550-1010. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Sept. 1. $19-$49; $10 for people under 30 on certain nights (call for more information).