Grace notes

Sacred Hearts , States of Grace
By LIZA WEISSTUCH  |  January 30, 2007

States of Grace

Among the shows that open each season, a few stand out like a pair of stiletto heels spotted in a swarm of rubber-soled footwear. They’re sturdy, they’re stylish, and the impression they make on the landscape has a point. It may not be important, but it’s discernible. Two such works appeared last weekend.

One is Canadian playwright Colleen Curran’s Northern Exposure–esque Sacred Hearts, which is getting its New England premiere from Zeitgeist Stage Company (at the BCA Plaza through February 17). Eliza Lay’s Bridget is a devout Catholic in the hinterlands of Westfalia, Quebec, who has given up law school to become a shepherdess. One morning while she’s praying at a statue of the Virgin Mary, it shifts its position. Whether she actually saw it move becomes less important than trying to keep the event a secret. Fat chance of that once the town gossipmongers rip into her like vultures and chatter about what it could mean. Word soon spreads beyond Westfalia, and religious pilgrims start arriving by the busload, leaving Bridget to fret that her personal demons will be exhumed for public consumption.

The play’s colorful brigade include a meddling church lady with an instinct for capitalism, Bridget’s supportive, government-employed brother, an aloof pastor, a ditzy local gal with big journalistic ambitions, and the local paper’s editor, who has eyes for Bridget. A chart of their interactions might look something like a Bill Belichick game plan. But David J. Miller keeps the show moving at a jaunty pace, and Curran’s spirited dialogue reveals the conflict between her characters’ superficial niceties and their deep-rooted motives while balancing giddy small-town-life jokes and moral musings.

Whereas Sacred Hearts puts village life under the microscope, States of Grace takes Manhattan’s urban pulse and records the clanking whir of longing. Based on Grace Paley’s short stories, this Debra Wise play is getting its world premiere by Underground Railway Theater (at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through February 10). Faith, who appears regularly in Paley’s acute short fiction, is the author’s alter ego, a socially conscious New Yorker born to Russian immigrants, and URT has done a remarkable job of streamlining voluminous texts to animate her. Played by Wise, she traipses around her cramped kitchen trying to stave off world-weariness and find inspiration for her writing — and her life. Then there are David Fichter’s puppets, which emerge in various forms like strippers out of a birthday cake to offer wisdom and encouragement and turn what might otherwise be the cliché’d tormented-artist play into its own surreal variation on the kitchen-sink drama.

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