Shakespeare & Company opens season on a note of grace

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LENOX — Grace Colaff, the pivotal character in Carey Crim's forgettable comfort-food play, "Morning After Grace," never appears but her spirit dominates, especially given Corinna May's luminous performance as Grace's surrogate, Abigail, at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where the play is having its New England premiere in a production that, with the exception of May's singular contribution, falls short of the play's modest ambitions.

Grace has died; drowned off a Florida beach along the Gulf of Mexico. "Morning After Grace" begins the morning after her funeral. The setting is the living room and adjoining open kitchen of the Florida retirement village condo Grace shared with her husband, Angus (Steven Barkhimer), a 70-year-old retired activist human rights lawyer. It is clear from the two naked blanket-enshrouded bodies asleep on the couch and the empty vodka bottle and two glasses on the floor that Angus has drowned his grief in a night of sublime debauchery with Abigail, who turned up — by mistake, it turns out; a confusion of days and dates, she says. — at Grace's funeral, even though she never met the women. Nor does Abigail have any idea that Angus is the widower.

What transpires over the course of the play's nearly two hours is an exploration of the ways in which we navigate loss, betrayal, missed opportunity and fresh opportunity.

To one degree or another, Crim's three characters — Abigail and Angus are joined by Ollie (Kevin Vavasseur), a black, 68-year-old former pitcher for the Detroit Tigers — are wrestling with disappointment in the most meaningful of relationships. Abigail, who is two months shy of her 63rd birthday, is marking the third anniversary of her divorce after 39 years of marriage. "Got traded in for a younger model," she tells Angus. "Fewer rings on the tree. He was my first. My first everything really. I was 20 when we got married and I haven't been with anyone since, until last night." And, much to her surprise, Abigail acknowledges that her lovemaking with Angus stirred feelings within her that she had not felt for some time.

For his part, Angus is dealing not only with his wife's senseless, inexplicable death, but also his belief that, after 44 years of marriage, she'd been carrying on an affair for the better part of a year. All he can do is begin gathering up her belongings and throwing them into garbage bags. "She died," he says vigorously. "Then I found out my marriage of 44 years was a sham. It sucked. I was pissed. Now I'm moving on. What's the point of grieving for something that turned out to be lie?"

For his part, Ollie has been kicked out of the condo he shares with his same-sex partner of 25 years because he won't tell his 92-year-old father (or anyone else for that matter), who wants to move in with Ollie, that he shares his life with another man.

What do you do with all that, Crim asks. Where do you go with it? How do you deal with unresolved grief? How do you move on?

From what is said about her, Grace emerges as a woman who carried grace, warmth, generosity of spirit with her wherever she went. Ollie, who knew Grace from a gym and a yoga class, met her routinely for lunch. she proved an adroit grief counselor when his cat died.

Grief counseling is what Abigail knows best. It's what she does for a living. In one of the production's most compelling moments, she, and then Angus, force Ollie into a role-playing improvisation that Abigail uses with her patients in which he tells his father the truth, face to face with Angus filling in. Angus doesn't buy Ollie's approach and forces him to do it again, deeper, unvarnished. Vavasseur delivers in a speech that is poignant, aching and authentic in its unmelodramatic, penetrating openness.

It's a level of truth Barkhimer never finds in his too-laid back, uncommitted portrayal of Angus, even when Angus' own role-playing turn comes and he is persuaded by Ollie to let out his unrelieved burden. It's a painful, frustrating acknowledgement. Where an emboldened and relieved Ollie is ready to fly to his father's retirement home in Arizona to tell him the truth and lay down ultimatums, Angus doesn't have the luxury of face-to-face resolution with Grace.

There is a sense in watching Barkhimer that dots are not being connected. Emotional outbursts feel more obligatory, illustrative; without foundation or context.

Contrast that with May who seems to have cornered the market, at least in this production, on subtext, the inner life that defines character. Hers is a performance that is cut from whole cloth. Her adroitly fake-swearing Abigail is a revealing blend of apprehension, confusion, audacity, frankness, childlike delight, wisdom, keen observation and wit; a sixth sense that feels as if she is in tune with another dimension; someone who senses and appreciates the signs the departed send to let us know that they are still around, guiding, watching, supporting. It's meaningful, I think, that director Regge Life's production misses a great deal when May's Abigail simply isn't around. And when her Abigail does return, to a needy and eager and willing Angus, it is with a reassurance and understanding that is based not only on her professional skills, but also from that place of "other"; a sign, perhaps, that grace — upper case and lower case — has come to stay.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6212


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