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Grace Under Pressure 

An abused wife struggles for something better

If you listen to the people who want a stronger border between the U.S. and Mexico, the solution sounds awfully simple. Just build a fence so high and so impenetrable that no one will ever be able to cross. It's a swell idea until reality gets in the way — as it does in The Book of Grace, a play about the fences and aliens that exist in our families and even ourselves.

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, this is a kitchen-sink drama with global thematic aspirations, and it often succeeds brilliantly thanks to some stellar performances. But ultimately it feels like there is a better play — a more involving story — inside that is struggling to come out. It involves a white Texas border guard named Vet, his black son by Vet's long-deceased former wife, and Vet's current white wife Grace. Although Parks' script makes no big deal about this racial mixture, the stark differences inform every moment onstage — especially since Vet, who used to be a badass nicknamed Snake, is now "on the good foot" and rhapsodizing about the many benefits of fences.

Vet is soon to be awarded a medal for stopping a truckload of Mexicans from entering the country. But he and Grace are visited by Vet's son Buddy, back from the war and trying to reconnect with his family. His meetings with his father and stepmom are shattering in different ways; when Vet opens his arms wide we expect a hug, but he's only miming a demand that Buddy do the same, so Vet can frisk him.

The fences in these relationships, and the yawning holes that riddle those barriers, form the bulk of the play. Vet keeps obsequious Grace under his thumb, while Grace secretly writes in her titular tome, desperately seeking a way to keep her optimism alive. And Buddy starts his own "book," a video journal under the borrowed moniker of Snake, which seethes with rage and whiffs of terrorism.

It's all quite fascinating, up to a point. Trouble is, Vet is a familiar abusive-man stereotype (although powerfully played by Charles Kartali), and Buddy is a challenging amalgamation of disparate characteristics that never seem to knit together. Rod Lawrence has many fine moments as Buddy, but he never quite makes it all work as a unified character.

The heart of the play, as the title suggests, is Grace. Sally Groth turns in a luminous portrayal of this flinchingly fearful woman, who still has the gumption to try to create her own beautiful world — to "write her own ending" to her story. With her halting attempts at joy, interrupted by scathing put-downs of herself that echo Vet's rants, Grace is a woman we need to know much more about than this script offers us.

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