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Finding Grace on the North Shore

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 8, 2006 6:27PM

Anton Chekhov famously advised aspiring playwrights: If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last. Craig Wright turns that rule on its head in Grace, his powerful meditation on faith, reason and time now playing at the Northlight Theater. Here, the gun fires during an opening scene staged in reverse. The rest of the show pieces together how protagonists Steve and Sara, a devout Christian couple undone by a sham business deal compromising their faith, and their neighbor Sam, a scientist who doubts God in the wake of tremendous loss, arrive at that violent moment.

Gracethree.jpgNorthlight is promoting Wright’s credentials as a writer on TV’s Lost and Six Feet Under, but observant theater fans may recognize the author of recent Chicago storefront hits Recent Tragic Events and Orange Flower Water. Where each show explores characters trapped by time and circumstance, the particularly cruel circumstances in Grace build compellingly to a more violent, if less interesting, conclusion. Two complementary stories unfold on a single set doubling as identical neighboring apartments. Meticulous technical details like the slow, intermittently rotating stage and Director Dexter Bullard’s imaginative blocking add depth to what in lesser hands could have easily become gimmicky melodrama. Steve and Sara try to make a real estate promise real while Sam desperately tries to hold onto artifacts of happier times. They have the power to help and heal one another or to tear each other apart.

By the show’s second half, four natural and marvelously vulnerable performances had us completely hooked. Aside from an awkwardly played opening scene, Steve Key crisply portrays Steve, the wide-eyed evangelic Midwesterner in Florida, ripe to be conned. Effortlessly and blithely wrapping himself in his faith, he sublimates doubt until his life unravels. His resulting insanity is not as effective, but by then the story belongs to Sam and Sara. Michael Shannon beautifully elicits Sam’s struggle to make sense of his misfortune and start trusting his neighbors. As Sara, Cahon Cross turns in a pivotal performance as a loving, patient and secretly resentful wife and a huge-hearted friend to Sam. As the jaded exterminator Karl, veteran favorite Mike Nussbaum floored the audience with the most powerful monologue of the night, relating tragedy from a different era to those stories presently colliding.

Grace is darker and riskier than most Northlight offerings, a puzzle that demands your attention for two intermission-less hours but yields great rewards for those who stay with it. The show’s premiere at Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre became a Rorschach test for an increasingly polarized political class, but Wright is smart enough not to pass judgment or take sides, bringing sensitivity to divergent but comparably flawed world views while reminding us that faith and reason can and must co-exist.

Grace, presented by the Northlight Theatre, plays at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, Tuesdays - Sundays through February 26. Tickets are $34-54. More information at

Photo via Michael Brosilow, Northlight Theatre.