Poetry Returns to the Theater in "Gracie and Rose"

As I emerged from writer and performer Anastasia Coon’s Gracie and Rose, all I could think about was getting my hands on the play. I wanted to read the script. That hasn’t happened since I saw my last Tennessee Williams’ play. Coon’s writing reminds me of Williams’: that unique blend of regionalism and poetry. This is what theatre is meant to do: expose the audience to a different landscape –psychologically and physically — from their own where the only thing that stays the same is the human condition.

Anastasia Coon as Gracie (photo Christine-Krench-Retzger)

Anastasia Coon as Gracie (photo Christine-Krench-Retzger)

Gracie & Rose explores the marriage of Rose, a love mad wife to Gracie, a woman so broken by her father’s abuse, she has determined to live her life as a man. This would be difficult enough to pull off in a metropolis, but Coon sets her play in Wyoming, on a farm, in the 1950’s. Gracie passes as George, a slow-talking, hard working stoic sick to his stomach because he can’t give Rose a child. When Rose knocks herself up discreetly by initiating a crushing neighbor boy, the marriage enters a new phase, one that cements George’s identity and erases Gracie’s. There’s more lovemaking, but less communication. They have a family and a farm to raise.

Throughout the narrative, Coon expertly goes back and forth through time. We meet their child as an adult after Gracie and Rose have passed. We go back to Gracie’s childhood when her father beat her mercilessly for wearing a dress up a ladder. Director Che’Rai Adams resourcefully utilizes this same ladder as a prop to gut and drain a pig and a stand in as George in a beautifully choreographed lovemaking scene with Rose.

The striking aspect of the play is not just the main characters of Gracie and Rose, who like all the characters are played by Coon, but the clarity with which we see ancillary characters such as Gracie’s favorite aunt who lived her life without caring about social conventions, or Gracie’s father who Rose remarks is as alive in that marriage as if he were present. The farm itself becomes a major character, ominous but generous, binding the marriage with purpose and hope.

There are times, however, when the language is so ornate that it interrupts the flow of the action. In the scene of the killing of the Pig, Coon alternates between playing Gracie and Rose, double teaming to kill and prep the creature, a task that requires strength and method. It rattled Coon’s concentration to negotiate between the deftness of the task at hand with the long-winded descriptions of what it is they are doing. Still when they are finished with Pig, Rose remarks how the smell of Pig’s burned hair and skin will “stick to the stone walls of the dairy.” I could smell the pig and the farm, see the expanse of land against a dry and cool dairy. Coon’s elegant writing makes up for the incongruous direction of action.

In the end, the refrain, “We are all pieces of broken symmetry,” echoes the theme of humanity’s perfect imperfection. Together, Gracie and Rose pick up the broken pieces of the past to imperfectly assemble a new family. —June 20, 2013