“You left the church but took all the guilt with you.”
Shauna Johannesen’s new play Common Grace will play well to its target audience inside the faith-based Pacific Theatre. For the rest of us though, it adds nothing new in its moral exploration.
Returning for her father’s funeral after having abruptly left some six months ago, Colleen is looking to reclaim her previous life. Estranged from her family, ostracized by her church, and ultimately confused as to what she wants in life, Colleen returns to confront her recent past and move on.
With the risk of revealing too much of Colleen’s dilemma and spoil any potential surprise for audiences, in 2016 the scandal that is behind Colleen’s journey is pretty tame stuff. Once revealed though, her quest and the effect it has on those around her is ultimately predictable. As there are so few new ideas introduced in Common Grace it simply becomes a sermon to the faithful and those that might have strayed: all can be forgiven, god will always welcome you back, and your happiness isn’t necessarily the goal, if it doesn’t fit inside a prescribed morality.
Not that these are unworthy sentiments, but there is little depth. Even on the rare occasion Johannesen attempts to introduce an unfamiliar voice, such as an odd comparison of Colleen’s transgression to suicide, it is never really explored in a meaningful way.
As family kitchen dramas go, Common Grace swings between loud confrontation and contemplative revelation with the regularity of a metronome inside Carolyn Rapanos’ realistic set. Some of its cast are up to the challenge, especially the three sisters played by playwright Johannesen, Julie Lynn Mortensen, and Cara Cunningham. There is an authentic connection between the trio when they are on stage together. In her professional stage debut, Cunningham is particularly good here as the youngest of the siblings.
While Carl Kennedy brings a wonderfully understated performance as Pastor Dan, like most of the characters in Common Grace, his role as moral compass is as anticipated as the blame placed on Colleen for what transpired.
Kerri Norris as matriarch Carol and Robert Garry Haacke as family interloper Mark don’t fare as well in Johannesen’s unsurprising world. There is little of the requisite passion in Haacke’s performance to make his role in Colleen’s predicament believable and, as written, Norris struggles against a character arc that we have seen so many times before. Rebecca deBoer has the daunting task of becoming the catalyst for much of act two and while she is largely up to the challenge, Johannesen places her in such an untenable situation that she generates little sympathy.
Common Grace asks if it really is possible to go home again. According to playwright Johannesen, for the faithful at least, that is always an option.
Common Grace by Shauna Johannesen. Directed by Ron Reed. A Pacific Theatre production. On stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 West 12 Ave, Vancouver) until February 14. Visit http://pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.
(Note: this review was updated on Feb 8, 2016 to correct the name of the actor who played Mark).