A streetwise drama about star-crossed lovers from the Chinese Capulets and the black Montagues sounds pretty rich, doesn’t it? But Chad Beckim’s gritty “Lights Rise on Grace” doesn’t stop there, though it does cite “Romeo and Juliet.” It heads into prison, gives its Romeo a gay love affair with a troubled white convict, and observes its three main characters developing extremely hard shells yet crumbling under the pressures of secrets and self-deception.
The 90-minute play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre hits some storytelling snags as it sweeps across years with narration that seems to cut corners. But the acting in Michael John Garces’s premiere production is often electric. The trio of performers plays a gallery of a dozen or more edgy figures while cutting deeply into the central threesome of the withdrawn Chinese girl Grace, her gregarious black friend and lover Large, and Large’s white friend-protector-lover Riece.
Garces wastes no time establishing the menace of this world. The metal prison gates of Luciana Stecconi’s set slam and echo, and James Garver’s disturbing sound design pulses and hums. But Beckim knows and likes his characters, and the performances disarm you. Jeena Yi is like a frightened deer as young Grace, afraid to move in the schoolyard as she’s approached by DeLance Minefee’s amiable, funny Large. Yi and Minefee gingerly poke through the cultural differences between the characters, establishing a sweetness that gives their cruel twists of fate the tang of tragedy. (It’s complicated, as Large keeps Grace in the dark about Riece.)
As Riece, Ryan Barry is jittery and confrontational when he meets Large in the joint, but he also eases his way into Large’s confidence with what feels like genuine trustworthiness. The contradictions are part of what drive the performance — the inward Grace’s impulsive self-destructiveness (which Yi plays with ferocity), or Large’s pitiable isolation and bouts of rage, equally persuasive in Minefee’s big-hearted performance.
Barry is great at the underworld slang and at Riece’s wily, predatory way of dominating conversations; the cadences of the acting always feel real, and the performances are rich in body language. Spatial relationships matter — Garces is tremendously careful with this — because everyone is always on the edge of love or violence. In Beckim’s script, love and violence are deliberately mixed up. Race is part of the conflict, and Large is a particular mess because of his sexual confusion.
An extraordinary aspect of Beckim’s script is its demand that each actor also play across racial or gender lines in quick strokes, and the authority of these portraits is impressive. We hear the disapproving voices of Grace’s Chinese parents (in Chinese) and Large’s homophobic family, voices that lure Riece into hustling and theft — enough to flesh out an awfully harsh world that seldom cuts anyone a break. It puts the title in a brutally ironic light.
Woolly is onto a bit of a theme here: As this trio’s relationship snaps the limits of conventionality, you’re sure to think of Woolly’s last play, if you saw it. Lisa D’Amour’s quiet “Cherokee” likewise aggressively tested race and domestic partnerships, marital and otherwise, as four suburbanites leave home for Native American land. Beckim’s play, though, bubbles up from the mean streets.
The script was seen as part of the New York International Fringe Festival in 2007, and the Woolly production is part of a National New Play Network rolling premiere. The wrinkle is the momentum-killing narration that rotates from Grace to Large to Riece; that tactic delivers information but eventually dampens the heat generated by Beckim’s dramatic exchanges, authentic voices and unexpected arc. Those are the better angels of this demon-wracked play.
By Chad Beckim. Directed by Michael John Garces. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lights, Dan Covey. About 90 minutes. Through April 26 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$68, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net