“They see the creases, they know they’re done for!” carps Vet (John Doman), a belligerent South Texas border cop pontificating on the mindset of illegals when they see the sharp indents of his pants in Suzan-Lori Parks’s newest, The Book of Grace. It’s an astute analogy, given that Parks—never one to give audiences an easy route through the swirling, often bizarre complexities of her characters—absolutely lets you see the creases here, and certain audiences not on her wavelength are most certainly done for. However, her blackly comic Southern gothic, despite its longueurs and occasional overreaches, is sprinkled with poetic assertions on postwar distress and home-life abuses, and in James Macdonald’s first-rate production at the Public, it occasionally even manages to cast a sinister spell.
The interior of a home sits on a large bed of sand and rubble with a projection of the house’s exterior just behind it, as Vet and his diner waitress/hopeful dreamer wife Grace (Elizabeth Marvel) await the arrival of his army-bred son Buddy (Amari Cheatom), who is preoccupied with taking down his callous dad. Through a series of allusive discoveries, we discover that Buddy is an abuse victim in ways more abundant than Parks’s text makes too explicit, and taking his cue from Grace’s carefully assembled book project of the title—a series of seemingly frivolous events she calls “evidence of good things”—he begins a project of his own, which involves righting his wrongs, especially in regard to his father, who was more than unkind to his birth mother years back. Armed with a video camera and lifetime of roiling hurt, he’s a powder keg ready to go off.
Best known for her tense, Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog, Parks knows a thing or two about military families (she’s the product of one), and though very-Greek-ish sins-of-the-father dramas are hardly original these days, her unusual take on screwed-up families makes the scenario seem fresh. And with a cast as fine as this one has (Cheatom, Doman, and the always rattlingly intense Elizabeth Marvel are all tops), the admittedly slow-moving and sometimes swampy drama always stays out of the mud.
The Book of Grace is now playing at Public Theater (425 Lafayette St. near Astor Place) in New York City and through April 4. Schedule: Tue-Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 2pm and 8pm, Sun at 2:30pm and 7:30pm. Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission.