As the room quietens and the stage lights come up, we are met by 8-year-old Gracie, who has just been brought across the US border to embark upon a new life in Canada. She is part of a polygamous religious cult, and her mother is here to become the eighteenth wife of an elder here, Mr Shelby.
The space is small and intimate. The slightly raised triangular platform hosts nothing but Gracie (played by Carla Langley) who will spend the next 90 minutes sharing her story with us as she grows up and begin to question the religious cult she has been born into.
With such a small space it can be tempting to fill the stage with gimmick props but I admire set and costume designer Kemp’s bravery in leaving the stage bare throughout. Nothing distracts or deflects us from Gracie’s story. Only a long pink, dress with what looks like cream long john’s underneath, indicate Gracie’s conservative upbringing.
Being part of a polygamous, religious cult is an alien concept to most of us and for one actor to bring us into that world without becoming a one-dimensional representation of the oppression or stereotype we might assume upon that character is certainly a challenge. But Langley is immediately charming and her energy and enthusiastic engagement with the audience enraptures us all.
“God doesn’t talk to girls. But He listens. I pray for God to tell Mr.Shelby to find me a husband who’s sweet and kind and not too old.”
If God is listening to Gracie, He is not the only one. Langley has us trapped under her spell throughout. She is ever present and this allows us to grow up and learn alongside Gracie. We feel her pain and live her faith, so that when she does waiver, rather than pure prejudice for the world that she comes from, we understand what it is she fears to lose.
The direction is seamless and brings real coherency to the writing. Varied, yet precise physicality in Langley allows her to navigate us through different scenes and lapses in time. She begins to multi-role, conveying her world to us. Subtle, yet deliberate character choices begin to hint at the darker goings-on. Mr Shelby goes to pinch at cheeks but lingers just a little too long, highlighting the predatory thoughts that Gracie is at mercy to. But the next moment we are snapped back to Gracie with a sniff.
This was a repetitive move. Often we would lurch back to Gracie and her naivety to a situation as she noisily blew her nose. However, I felt a little let down when this move did not develop or climax, or somehow grow with Gracie. To sniff so pointedly, is of course, indicative of a child, and Gracie was learning and changing. Perhaps with so little on stage, it is tempting to dissect the semiotics in everything before us, but it seemed to me, an opportunity had been missed.
A climax was certainly provided though. Hunter’s lighting design provided real contrast as Gracie finally comes into contact with the outside world. Having been dimly lit throughout, when Gracie finds herself in the stark light of a changing room, we feel her vulnerable exposure to the outside world, having been isolated until now. Similarly, Glossop’s sound design helps us seep emotionally from one scene into the next – although some of the lyrical music was difficult to decipher and a little out of place within a one voice script.
This was a beautiful piece. It was empathetic and engaging and truly took you into a different realm. We watch Gracie grow; we are told that when a mother gives birth she rises above her pain. As the story ends and Gracie embarks upon a new chapter once again, she too tells us that she floats above the pain she is leaving behind and we are reminded of the birthing process, with Gracie stripped down to what looks like a baby grow. We are witnessing a different kind of birth and see the blank canvas waiting for Gracie. MacLeod’s writing had real heart and its cyclical effect was wholly satisfying.
Review by Freya Bardell
Gracie was born into a polygamous religious community, and brought across the US border to Canada at the age of eight, when her mother became the eighteenth wife of an elder there. A lively and irrepressible child, her world is full of faith and family, but by the time she is fifteen, and at a marriageable age, she feels increasing pressure to conform…but will she ever dare to take the leap and step into the outside world?
A gripping and life-affirming story about growing up in a religious cult by Joan MacLeod, winner of Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Governor General’s Award.
Carla Langley plays Gracie.
This play is a work of fiction, inspired by Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) communities in Canada and the U.S.
The European premiere of Gracie by multi-award-winning Canadian playwright Joan MacLeod plays at the Finborough Theatre for nine Sunday and Monday evenings and Tuesday matinees from Sunday, 29th April to 15th May 2018.
118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED