Hoping in life for the grace her name promises -- but is not necessarily materializing -- Grace is an imposing academic whose teaching career has been devoted to championing rational thought. Though happily married to loving secular Jew Tony (Philip Goodwin), she's uncompromising where her convictions about the pitfalls of organized religion are concerned. So it's hardly surprising that she's thrown into quite a tailspin when her discontented lawyer son Tom (Oscar Isaac) announces he's decided to give up being a lawyer and become an Episcopalian priest instead. In one of the lectures the script has her deliver, she adamantly declares: "To believe something in the face of evidence and against reason -- to believe something by faith -- is ignoble, ignorant and irresponsible. And merits the opposite of respect." (The way Redgrave passionately attacks the consonants in the speech is alone worth the price of admission.)
As Gordon and Grayling design it -- if sometimes too polemically -- Grace's faith in reason is further challenged after Tom dies as a result of an attack on the church where he's been officiating. She reacts like a cornered animal when Tom's pregnant, possibly-to-be fiancé Ruth (K.K. Moggie) insists that according to Tom's wishes, the funeral be held in a church. Ultimately it isn't, but that's no consolation to Grace, who only reaches some solace as a result of a charged encounter she has with Ruth two years later at Tom's grave.
Although titled Grace, the often humorous play isn't limited to the layered study of a single character. The other three characters are richly multi-dimensional and not at all merely talking heads for the ideologies they represent. Tom is a relatively young man who believes he can help build a "better religion" that incorporates doubt as a healthy element. And he's handed what might be the play's biggest laugh, when he says in defense of his clerical obligations, "I don't provide cover for sexist, homophobic, bigoted people who put bombs on places. I did that when I was a lawyer."
Whereas Tony's accommodation to Grace could easily be written as acquiescence, Gordon and Grayling render it as a quiet strength. The high point is Goodwin's all-out physical illustration of the comic contention that "dancing is what makes people happy." (Isaac also shines in this scene.) Ruth, too, has more facets to her than the Hope diamond. Confessing that she held off agreeing to marry Tom because she feared he'd place his love for God before his love for her, she has a scene-stealing speech in which she proclaims that "I'm coming to think, believe in fact, that it's kindness, Grace, kindness, that's the big one, not love."
It's important to mention that Gordon and Grayling, who chalk up much wisdom between them, aren't entirely on Grace's side. Telling much of their story in flashback, they bookend it with a scientific experiment in which Grace is placed in a booth where it's believed she can have a religious experience imposed on her. Does she or doesn't she? The answer won't be divulged here, primarily because Gordon and Grayling are cagey about it. But the framing device does give the play the faint air of a retrospective religious revelation.
Designed with winning economy by a team including Tobin Ost and Alejo Vietti, Grace also marks Tony Award-winning director Joseph Hardy's return to Manhattan theater after a 30-year absence. Hardy could always be counted on for the too-rare ability to serve the play and not himself. It's a pleasure to report he retains that assurance, which is its own amazing grace.