Three Cheers to Grace
by John Stoltenberg
“They call me a vegetable,” Grace tells us. “They call me a corpse.” In this nimbly comic and deeply moving new play by Josie Walyus, a 14-year-old named Grace is literally in a coma. That’s how all the other characters see her: She suffered brain damage in an auto accident and is thisclose to dead. But in a brilliant theatrical stroke, Walyus portrays her title character fully awake and engaged, actively hearing and addressing everyone who comes into her hospital room, aware of their lives and loves unbeknownst to them. This shrewd dramatic device—which the script sets up and sustains beautifully throughout—has emotional resonance akin to that powerful final scene in Wilder’s Our Town when Emilie Gibbs returns from death to invisibly observe the everyday life she left behind.
In Grace’s case, she invisibly observes and responds to her circle of high school friends, who are a fun bunch, plus a few of their on-edge folks. In the pivotal role of Grace, Katie Rey Bogdan owns the stage with the droll ebullience of a young Nikki Blonsky. She and her best friend Eliza, a smartly spirited Madelyn Farris, were both on their way to swim-team practice when the car they were in crashed. The driver, Grace’s mom, was unhurt, but both Eliza and Grace were left comatose. Three Cheers to Grace picks up five months later, when Eliza has recovered, but Grace has not and never will.
At the core of the play is the abiding affection between Grace and Eliza, whose friendship has been fatefully interrupted. To that throughline, Walyus connects succinct scenes, ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking, that introduce us to nine supporting characters and their attendant subplots. Much of the pleasure of watching Three Cheers to Grace unfold stems from how cleverly crafted it is, with characters entering and leaving Grace’s hospital room and playing out loosely related minidramas with the momentum and élan one associates with good series TV.
Without giving their engrossing stories away, here’s a who else is who:
Dante, an appealingly animated Tre’Mon Kentrell Mills, takes a shine to Eliza as she does to him. The sensitive way Walyus depicts Grace’s feelings when she realizes her best friend has a new best friend is just one instance of how touching this play gets.
Nurse Rose, given a richly layered performance by Karen Romero, is Dante’s mom. Walyus reveals Nurse Rose’s backstory as an immigrant and the domestic crisis she is in with remarkable wisdom and compassion.
Jamie (Elenilson Ayala) and Maria (Sisi Reid) are an adorably adoring couple, goofily gaga for each other, and it’s in their scenes that Walyus treats us to the silly tensions and instant passions of young love.
Caroline, an absorbingly vivid Naima Randolph, is Eliza’s younger sister, and in her story is a haunting portrait of how it feels to live in the shadow a more accomplished older sibling.
Eliza and Caroline’s mother is seven-times-married Britney Raimond, played by Mimsi Janis on the cusp between tenderness and bravado. Mama Britney, as she wants to be called, is a wonderfully broad comic character whom Walyus skillfully keeps just this side of ridiculous.
Rounding out the play’s parent-child dynamics are Eliza and Caroline’s mom Lilliana Smith (a brittle, high-strung Suzanne Edgar) and their dad Gerald Smith (a sage and stolid Marlon Russ). One can marvel at how many friends-and family-dramas Walyus has woven into this work. And to the extent neurological expertise is required, it appears credibly in the character of Dr. Hines, played with professionalism and purpose by Stefanie Garcia.
Eric Ruffin has directed with evident conviction about this play’s worthiness as a new work. The pace, the stage pictures, the performances, the spacing are consistently arresting. At times Ruffin has actors silently walk about the set angularly like passersby on autopilot as if to sketch for us the harshly institutional environment in which this heartfelt play takes place.
Enhancing that impression is Scenic Designer Timothy J. Jones’s set: cool-plastic see-through walls and upstage cyc on which Lighting Designer Arnika Downey displays boldly colorful scene-change effects. Sound Designer Cresent Haynes accentuates those transitions with chest-quaking rumbles and blips and beeps of vital signs. And Costume Designer Moyenda Kulemeka has clothed the high schoolers like with-it kids and the adults like slightly out-of-it grownups. This is a play with a distinctly teen point of view, and the creative team completely got that.
“I wish I had spoken more,” says Grace late in the play, reflecting on her imminent demise. “I have so much more to say. My story can’t be over yet.”
I haven’t yet mentioned that this noteworthy play was written by a high school student (though the veracity of its teen speak could have given that away). Josie Walyus wrote the first draft in 2018 while a tenth grader in a Young Playwrights’ Theatre program at H-B Woodlawn. YPT then worked with her to develop what has become the first-ever YPT production of a full-length play by one of its mentees.
Judging from the achievement of Three Cheers to Grace, Josie Walyus is going to have many more stories to tell and much more to say. Catch this world premiere now so you can say you knew her oeuvre when.
Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, with no intermission