Lights Rise on Grace

by John Stoltenberg

Now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is a depiction of eroticism so intimate and artful that it left me woozy with awe and wonder.

No one takes their clothes off. There are no phony porny moans. Instead this powerful production of Chad Beckham’s probing Lights Rise on Grace reveals to us—sheerly through a coalescence of phenomenal playwriting, acting, and direction—three twenty-something characters intertwining and intersecting sensually, their arms, legs, and kisses entwined, their longings laid bare.

To call it a three-way would be to belittle its riveting complexity and the tightly choreographed tactility and poetic text that make the moment mind-blowing.

By the point in play when these three characters converge onstage physically as if in a fine-tuned trio of passion, we have gotten to know them very well indeed: a black man nicknamed Large (DeLance Minefee), a Chinese woman named Grace (Jeena Yi) with whom Large has been in love (they met in their teens), and a white man named Riece (Ryan Barry) whom Large met in prison and also fell in love with.

In the entangled triangle that the actors perform, we witness Grace’s desire for Large:

His breath on my neck, hot and deep.
His soft, smooth touch against the warmth of my skin.
His warm, hungry mouth. Lips, teeth, tongue tracing, nibbling, licking.
His hands massaging, exploring the curves of my waist, down over the crease in my hips, down the length of my legs.

We witness Riece’s desire for Large:

My panting, anxious breath. Shallow and eager.
My possessed, hurried hands grabbing, pulling.
My slobbering mouth slurping across his face and neck like a hungry bulldog.
Hands on pants, tugging, yanking, tearing them down.

We see Large torn torturedly between them:

Don’t –
Stop –
Please –
Don’t stop –

Twice during the play the actors entwine like this, with similar poetic language, and each time what amazes is that this is a metaphorical stage event only. It does not purport to be an actual scene in the characters’ narrative. Beckim’s story-theater-style script, full of direct address to the audience, guides us through a story as compelling as any one is likely to find in a 90-minute drama. It jumps back and forth in time but never loses us; it always tracks the character arcs with cliché-free specificity. And it is perfectly clear that Large and Grace have an explicit sexual relationship as do Large and Riece, but the three do not ever literally have a sexual encounter simultaneously. Yet through this stunning triadic enactment—voiced by Beckim, conceived by Director Michael John Garcés, and shaped in close collaboration with the actors—it as if we the audience are embraced into an empathic understanding of three character’s interior lives at a depth that theater rarely plumbs.

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi places the action on a slate-gray platform backed by great gates of steel lath that resound when slammed shut for the prison scenes like a cellblock on lockdown. Lighting Designer Dan Covey beams down bright white glare from a huge suspended panel as if the characters are under interrogation and we are privy to their truths. Sound Designer James Garver underscores the characters’ real world with otherworldly effects. Costume Designer Ivana Stack clothes the actors casually and practically. And the actors’ versatile portrayal of numerous supernumerary characters could not have occurred apart from Voice & Dialects Coach Gary Logan’s sharp ear.

In Lights Rise on Grace, the lives of three indelible characters braid together like an ever more taut rope that tugs at our hearts through the beautiful/sad ending when one of the strands lets go. Yet the exquisite memory of the eroticism that resonated between them persists. And like a beneficent illumination, Lights Rise on Grace sheds light on a unforgettable love story.