TAMPA — Stageworks Theatre has started its season with a substantive play, one that challenges easy but inadequate understandings of race, culture, family and sexual identity.
Lights Rise on Grace, a version of which was named Outstanding Play of the New York International Fringe Festival, is making its world premiere within the National New Play Network. Though it has been performed since 2007, playwright Chad Beckim is by his own account a compulsive rewriter, and the issues covered feel both timeless and contemporary.
Three characters play more than a dozen roles as each reflects on the difficulties — and here and there, the joys — of the bonds between them. These members of a nontraditional family move through complex and conflicted relationships at a brisk pace, thanks to capable and diligent work by the ensemble and Karla Hartley's direction.
The story begins with Grace, a shy 17-year-old whose estrangement from her Chinese-American parents forces her to fend for herself. She meets Large, a charming African-American man who sees something in her no one else has. No sooner do they bond when he goes to prison for six years.
A set by Frank Chavez evokes a vaguely abstract mixture of a harsh residential subsection of New York City, a prison cell and an apartment shared by Grace, Large and Riece, whom Large met while doing time.
In a recent interview, Beckim, who is white, told me he is not interested in classics or plays populated by "dead white guys." His plots tend to focus on minorities, and that can be both a strength a weakness. Some of the characters in stories told sound like Beckim imagining situations and people he knows little about, more like an educational film in the middle school where he teaches than real life.
Meanwhile, the many monologues delivered to the audience contain beautiful imagery and are serviceable. They sometimes also slow down an otherwise spare and efficient play.
Those nits, however, are outweighed by the depth and ambition of this script, which presents interlocking portraits of people who have been put under enormous pressures. Their inner dialogues bring up a range of other figures, all played by the same three actors — a social worker, a prison guard, an indifferent public defender.
In a couple of memorable sequences, Grace tries to reason with her parents, who are speaking Chinese. The lighting design by Joseph P. Oshry allows these fringe characters to appear and disappear.
Jessica Stone conveys the innocence and will as she moves through her stubbornly upward trajectory. Aaron Washington shows a range as Large, from his hyper-talkative introduction to the monotony of prison and the lingering scars after prison.
As Riece, Alexander Craddock is appropriately kind and manipulative, a traumatized character who acts out on his past. Sexuality is both daring and relatively chaste, sensual in some situations and repulsive in others.
The play does allow shreds of hope to emerge, all the more substantially because of the challenges the characters have all faced, none more nobly than the title character. That is why Lights Rise on Grace is built to last.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.