Monday, May 8, 2017

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney

By Joe Straw

“Art, said Stephen, is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.” – James Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I wondered why there were a lot of nuns in the audience.  It was probably to keep an eye on us heathens. Their quiet presence was in contrast to the godly winds on this night.  Winds that whipped metal shingles on the roof creating a terrible racket that produced both wonderful and strange metallic sounds. Beautiful sounds that made one terrific actor look up and absorb the noise that whipped back and forth.   

One suspects, through the awful grace of God, that these are compliments of misguided men who failed to hammer in that one extra nail.   – Narrator

Go The Distance Productions presents the world premiere of The Awful Grace of God, an evening of original one-act plays written by Michael Harney, Produced by Michael Harney, and directed by Mark Kemble at The Other Space @ The Actors Company in Hollywood through May 28th, 2017.

Off   (1972 – Flushing, Queens, New York)

Joe (Curtis Belz) cool wasn’t so cool sitting on the stoop of his Flushing Queens apartment. He had a beer at his side, well two actually, as he watched some kids play stickball.  They weren’t playing to his satisfaction and there was this smart aleck kid Jerry (R. J. Seikaly – not seen) who was always running his mouth.

Joe couldn’t do much about it, well not just yet. With his prosthetic leg, compliments of the draft, the US government, and Vietnam, getting up and down was harder and harder with each passing day. He must concentrate on the game and somehow avoid attention to his lifelong friend Stan (Bechir Sylvain).

Stan’s looking better theses day, not that Joe is actually noticing, but what’s up with the leather jacket, nice clothes, and extra money? Something going on and Joe wants to find out about it, eventually.  Yeah, what’s that deal? 

Stan says,  “Hey!” And Joe says nothing, sitting behind his shades, looking at nothing, until Stan moves closer, Joe takes a beer and flips the top inviting Stan to sit.

Joe, not satisfied with the game, starts yelling and the kids yell back. A lot of F.U.s are exchanged with Jerry until Joe pulls out a gun.  Stan has to jump in and control the situation.

Joe Jamieson (Michael Harney – not seen) tells Joe put his gun away.  Joe is someone in authority, possibly a cop, who is in everyone’s business and everyone in the apartment respects his views.

All around the acting is terrific.  The opening needs work to establish a credible relationship between the two men, one that intimates a bond from long ago.  With everyone trying to be cool, we lose a sense of what one wanted from the other and that needs to be defined.  Joe, I kind of got, but he needed to move in that direction long before Stan stepped on stage.

The Shaft song was terrific!   

Also Joe Jamieson, the godly voice, seems to be a policeman who lives upstairs and knows about these two men, what they are up to, and what they need to do to clean up their act. But, the vocal character is slightly confusing.  One would have liked to get a visual picture of the man.


The cold and snow in this New England cabin can play tricks on the senses if one is willing to surrender to the noise.  Dodge (Tim DeZarn) and Ellen (Janine Venable) come here each year for reasons that are made clear.

Ellen thinks seven years is enough time.  She wants to move on, to leave this place, leave them to her memories. She would love to go to other places, someplace warm for a change, like the Bahamas.  

But Dodge is fascinated by the rejuvenating sounds of the quiet, the noise from each passing movement, and the tracks that leave footprints to his doorsteps, a message to him perhaps if one is willing to take in all in.  

Dodge is out of coffee and when Ellen offers to go into the kitchen it gives him the opportunity to talk to his deceased son before time runs out. He searches for sounds first, and then shadows second, of who is out there, moving through the snow, breaking the brittle twigs in the crunching snow.   

“How are things? Making out okay?... Wonder how it is for you over there.” – Dodge

Dodge strains his eyes, searching for a sign, a shadow, hoping to see the image, the last time his son smiled, when he enveloped all the love and everything that moment offered.

(It is enough to openly weep! And I did.)

Ellen brings out the coffee – there’s too much milk in it – and starts labeling the fruit in Mason jars. She has a lot of convincing to do.

I loved this scene about two lovers who want different things but first have to surrender to each other, their emotions, and their dreams to recapture a moment. The quiet times are rejuvenating, when all things become clear, and this is how they go about finding closure.  

The opening, the first quiet moment, needs a purpose as the two characters are on opposites sides of the stage trying to find a way to connect, to be one with each other.

Willy and Rose

Okay, about the worst place you can be is in a fleabag motel room waiting for your boyfriend to show up, if he is ever going to show up.  The only thing she has to keep her company is a bottle of booze and a couple of glasses.  

Rose (Agatha Nowicki) waits, partially clothed, for her gruff boyfriend Willy (Johnny Whitworth) to show, if he’ll ever show up at all.

When Willy does show, he goes straight for the bottle, lays his gun down on the table and says he’s got a present for Rose, in a carrying case.

There’s money in there, and lots of it.  Rose first wants to leave and then she wants to know how Willy got it.  Willy, not entirely forthcoming, argues with Rose, which culminates with their lovemaking.

“You take away the dark, baby.” - Willy

Rose’s instincts, to leave before the lovemaking, would have been the better choice, but she stays. Willy’s explanation includes a justification for killing another man.

For the sake of making it look real, the fighting esthetics on stage can get a little worrisome and look a little out of control. Sometimes those actions work, other times they do not.  On this night, a glass broke as the actors fell onto the floor.  Fortunately no one was hurt.

The other character in the show was Infini (Joseph Bongiovanni) an assassin with a silencer. If what Willy says was true, then there is something very sinister about that support group. And, in saying so, the writing jumped three notches in my book.

The Long Walk Home

Joe (James Harvey Ward) comes home drunk. But before he makes it inside Joe greets his friend Charlie (Daniel Litz) and his partner Dee Dee (Rebecca Lidvan). Joe kisses Dee Dee on the lips and Charlie is not having any part of this.

Joe’s wife, Kate (Amelia Jackson Gray), a beautiful woman in a white and green Doris Day dress, hears the noise outside and Joe crawls though the door helped by Kate who has seen this too many times. Their two kids are in the back bedroom wanting a bedtime story. Joe keeps Kate from leaving instead he runs to the bedroom and hits the kids and then he comes back and hits Kate.

Joe awakens the next morning to find his mother, Ann (Janine Venable), with a cup of coffee for him.  She is disappointed and she wants Joe to get help.  But help does not come in the right package.  Joe’s dad John (Tim DeZarn) comes in the room in his wheelchair and tries to muscle Joe into doing what’s right.  

This 1950’s intervention of sorts ends without a significant resolution. The acting is terrific on all levels but there is a lot of information presented without explanation – a number of whys without completely understanding the relationships.  Why is John is in a wheelchair? Why does Joe come home drunk? And, why is the wife, Kate, so passive?  Also, why is John’s mother the first and only one to take care of John? What is special about their relationship?  Why is she holding the keys to his mental health?  (I know, I have a lot of questions on this one.)

Need (Shelter From the Storm)

Katherine (Marie Broderick), a therapist, is strictly professional.  The patient, Francis (Marshall McCabe), comes in tired.  Since the death of his parents he has been keeping himself busy with his new book. But he is finally happy, after extended sessions of therapy, grieving the loss of his parents, and the passing of time.  

But in the back of his mind, Francis is still despondent. Or, is there another reason he keeps coming back to see his therapist?

There is more on Francis’ mind. He is in love with his doctor and he lets it be known that she is the only thing that matters.

Again, in this scene, one person is pushing and shoving, not something one would see from two intellectuals. Despite that, there are two terrific actors in this scene who find a common core of truth, getting what they want, and also getting very emotional in the process. The actors are strong in their objectives.


Zip (Oscar Best), a black man, was strapped to a metal pole in a thunderstorm.  (Let me break some rules in giving you an idea of what I thought the scene was about.)

There is one hint given in the program, “Here – The Present”.

Zip didn’t know why he was there, strapped to a pole. He couldn’t recall, and really couldn’t speak.  He felt pained, like something injured him, perhaps a 2 x 4” board wacked against his skull that made him unable to speak, for reasons that were unexplained.  But now, here, he was trapped, chained against a metal pole, waiting for the inevitable. And it was coming, something he felt, inside. It was useless to try to escape, he lacked the strength necessary, and there was only one way now.   The end on this road was near.

He heard the voice, a woman, Presence (Janine Venable) to guide him to the next phase of life. And despite the pain, he listened for a sign of comfort, the one note, the last word to guide him, but she was saying things he couldn’t understand, poetic words, without purpose, or a purpose without meaning. 

Zip wondered how this was going to end, chained like a slave, and dying like the others before him. No need for him to look around for help, he was in an isolated area, in the woods, far away from any caring human being. And finally, this injustice act deserved a scream, a way of letting someone know that he mattered.

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney is a series of one-acts that must work in some kind of cohesive whole.  It is all under one title, under one label. As it is now, the acts do not seem connected.  But the acts work on an separate level and were fascinating with terrific actors playing the roles. Also, the time frame is scattered.  We go back and forth in periods, 1972, present day, to 1950, and then again back to present day. How the awful grace of God relates to any of the one-acts is up to anyone’s interpretation.  There are spiritual elements in each scene.

Mark Kemble, the director, guides the remarkable actors.  There is more to be had in establishing relationships, maintaining strong objectives, and giving each character a backstory to define the character’s motives. Still, this was a lovely night of theatre.  There must be a creative way to implement better scene changes. In fact that should be a specific job for someone.

Joel Daavid, Set Designer, always does terrific work and in this production gives us a layered background upstage, which accepts Fritz Davis marvelous projections. Wonderful work!

Ed Zajac, Sound Designer, adds an extra element of life, gunshots, passing cars, and crystal clear voice-overs by various members of the cast.  

So all I can think about is the first quote of the “esthetic end”.  What is our esthetic end?  If it is a showcase for actors, then it is a job well done. If all acts relate to the awful grace of God then we need that connective DNA to make it a cohesive whole.  

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Brian Foyster – Producer
Andrew Schmedake – Lighting Designer
Thomas Zoeschg – Stage Manager
Steve Moyer Public Relations – Show Publicist
Malyssa Lyles – Wardrobe Consultant
Jennifer Abel – Publicist for Michael Harney
Kaho Koinuma – Graphic Designer
Billy Pace – Music & Editing for Promotional Video
Bruce Nehlsen – House Manager
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer
Susan Rimel – Deck Crew
Emily Lewis - Deck Crew
Marien Walton – Charge Scenic Artist
Jody St. Michael – Scenic Painter

Run! Run!  And take someone who has overcome a great deal of adversity.

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