Alexander Alioto, Jaime Lincoln Smith, and Ali Ahn
in Lights Rise on Grace
(© Dixie Sheridan)
Alexander Alioto, Jaime Lincoln Smith, and Ali Ahn
in Lights Rise on Grace
(© Dixie Sheridan)
If you didn't make it to as many shows as you wanted to in the New York International Fringe Festival, there's still time to catch some of its biggest hits and/or more critically acclaimed works as part of the FringeNYC Encores series. Case in point: Lights Rise on Grace at the Bleecker Street Theater. This beautifully written chamber play by Chad Beckim, wonderfully acted by a three-person cast under the direction of Robert O'Hara, explores issues of race, sexuality, and relationships in a complex and thoroughly engaging manner.

Grace (Ali Ahn), a painfully shy Chinese-American woman, meets and falls in love with classmate Large (Jaime Lincoln Smith), an African-American man who brings her out of her shell. Then he completely disappears from her life for six years. Unbeknownst to her, he's been sent to jail, where he meets Riece (Alexander Alioto), a Caucasian prisoner who takes him under his wing and becomes his lover. Following his release, Large gets back together with Grace, but both have been irrevocably changed by the years spent apart -- so much so that even a newborn baby may not be enough to keep them together.

Beckim's use of language is poetic without feeling pretentious. Words and phrases are repeated throughout this tightly written text, moving from one character's mouth to another, and taking on new meanings with the variance and repetition. The playwright is sensitive to the ways that race can impact a relationship, especially in the reactions to such a union by family members. His treatment of sexuality is even more nuanced, particularly in regard to Large, who continues to hook up with men after his marriage to Grace.

Ahn displays Grace's awkward first encounter with Large to perfection, and her reactions to both his disappearance and return are nicely infused with contradictory impulses. Smith alternately projects confidence and insecurity as he struggles with the shame and guilt that Large feels for the actions he's taken. Alioto is charming as Riece, with a hint of maliciousness and an edge of unpredictability.

The direct-address monologues that the characters deliver to the audience are so intimately performed that they feel like private confessions. All of the actors also do a good job with the accents (and sometimes foreign languages) that they take on when portraying additional roles. For his part, O'Hara paces the action at a leisurely speed that is nevertheless precise and deliberate. There's a dreamlike quality to the staging, aided by Jason Jeunnette's evocative lighting.

The play does not resolve the messy complex of emotions brought about by the secrets, lies, and betrayals between Large, Grace, and Riece. But it does come to a satisfying conclusion that allows the characters to find a kind of peace.