Amari Cheatom and Elizabeth Marvel in The Book of Grace
(© Joan Marcus)
Amari Cheatom and Elizabeth Marvel in The Book of Grace
(© Joan Marcus)
A father raises both of his arms, making it look as if he's about to hug the son he hasn't seen in 15 years -- and ends up searching the young man for concealed weapons. The moment nicely encapsulates the highly dysfunctional family dynamic within Suzan-Lori Parks' The Book of Grace, now receiving its world premiere at the Public Theater. But while the production, directed by James MacDonald, contains plenty of interesting images such as this one, it is not as compelling a work as one might hope.

As it turns out, Vet (John Doman) is right to be cautious about trusting his son Buddy (Amari Cheatom), for once Vet is out of sight, Buddy promptly retrieves a stash of grenades he's hidden away. Buddy is also quick to take his stepmother Grace (Elizabeth Marvel) to bed. And yet, Vet's history of abuse -- of both Buddy and Grace -- makes the situation more complex, and the play wrestles with a certain amount of moral relativism as the actions of all three characters are questionable.

Grace, while not completely guiltless, is the most sympathetic character in the play, as well as the most hopeful. She's writing a book about "the evidence of good things," even though her own life doesn't seem to support her thesis. The play also utilizes the writing of the book in a metatheatrical way, as chapter titles are announced in voiceover, and the sounds of a typewriter indicate that what we are watching may actually be part of Grace's book.

Marvel pushes a bit too hard in the initial moments of the production, but as the play continues, she brings out both a warmth and quiet strength in her portrayal of Grace. She has good chemistry with Cheatom, making their scenes together some of the strongest within the show. However, Cheatom tends to indicate Buddy's anger and doesn't bring enough depth to his role. Likewise, Doman seems to play only one dimension of Vet, and while part of the reason for that may lie in the script, it makes for a rather drab performance.

The design work, however, is top notch, beginning with Eugene Lee's abstracted version of a domestic interior, which contains a kitchen sink, but makes it clear we're not watching a realist drama by embedding various pieces of furniture in sand. Projection/video designer Jeff Sugg and lighting designer Jean Kalman collaborate to create some of the more beautiful effects within the show -- particularly when it comes to the play of light and imagery on a large photograph of the exterior of a house, which dominates the back wall of the set.

Many of Parks' past works have been not so subtle metaphors for race relations in America, and it would be easy to look at the abusive white father and the angry African-American son within this play in such terms. Interestingly, the script itself does not make reference to the racial make-up of any of the characters, although that's impossible to escape in the casting of Caucasian actors as Vet and Grace, and an African-American as Buddy. The fact that Vet works as a border guard is also of significance, as are the character names within the play. And while such heavy-handed symbolism seems overly simplistic, it at least gives a keener edge to Parks' otherwise overwrought domestic drama.