America, from sink to shining sink: that's the real subject of Suzan-Lori Parks's domestic explosion, The Book of Grace. The 2010 play — for the production of which Company One scored not only the Boston premiere (at the BCA Plaza Theatre through May 7) but also venerable director David Wheeler — does not deploy such startling metaphoric devices as the carnival re-enactment of the Lincoln assassination that is a linchpin of both the author's The America Play and her Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog. This one's allegorical underpinnings are less imaginative, as well as more overt than they need to be. Still, the play runs on Parks's jazzy, lyrical language toward a climax that is no less visceral for being as easy to see coming at you as a lit-up train on the cacti-laden Texas prairie where the play is set.
BLUNT FORCE In Suzan-Lori Parks’s latest, the sink, the couch, and the TV replace the Great Hole of History.
The middle-aged Vet is a US Border Patrol guard — a job that fits him like his carefully creased uniform, since this is a guy who believes in fences, in Us vs. Them, in keeping "the alien" out. But sometimes, he cautions, "the alien is right in your own home, sometimes right in your own blood, and you've got to build a wall around it." Ding-dong: guess who's coming to dinner? Vet is about to receive a medal for having apprehended some Mexicans attempting to sneak marijuana into the country, and his willfully cheery waitress wife, Grace, has invited his long-estranged son, Buddy, to share in the festivities. Army explosions expert Buddy, who is black, has a medal of his own — as well as serious bones to pick with the Caucasian Vet, whose crimes extend beyond abandonment to something cryptic but "unspeakable."
Against a landscape as mythic as that of a Sam Shepard play (its flora, barbed wire, and power lines projected behind the shabby parlor/kitchen), these characters have "symbol" written all over them. Vet is "The Man": the morally bankrupt, bullying Establishment, which promises much but gives nothing. The cowed and abused Grace, hiding her fear behind rose-colored glasses, is the optimistic enabler who lets him get away with it. (She keeps a rag-tag collection of musings and clippings, the title Book of Grace, in which she collects feeble "evidence of good" in the world.) And Buddy, spouting insurrection in the form of recitations from the Declaration of Independence, is the rebel who may or may not take down "The Man."
On top of this trinity, Parks throws in references to the Garden of Eden: Buddy adopts his father's erstwhile nickname of Snake, and Grace professes an Eve-like affinity for such creatures. Yet the characters are sometimes more than placards heading for a collision. Director Wheeler (assisted by his son, Lewis) guides with a sure and tender hand, and the encounters between Frances Idlebrook's chirpy, splintering Grace and Jesse Tolbert's militant babe of a Buddy are marked by a blushing sensuality that can be heartbreaking. (If Topdog/Underdog is Parks's True West, this is her Desire Under the Elms.) As Vet, Steven Barkhimer, signaling with rabbit-like sniffs the worst to come, is the scarier for being so chillingly matter-of-fact. And the worst, when it does come, is shocking — though its Stieg Larsson–esque aftermath is pointlessly lurid.