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WHEN GRACE COMES IN

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The father who goes out for a pack of cigarettes one night and never returns is easy to hate, even easier to understand. But playwright Heather McDonald switches the gender, making the mother just up and leave. Under the direction of Sharon Ott, the production lets us examine whether a lifelong calling can tug harder on a woman's heartstrings than on her apron strings. Margaret's (Jane Beard) midlife crisis reads like a hypochondriac's to-do list: She describes chest pains, numbness, and an inability to remember nouns. In the first of several incongruous dream sequences, the Paleontologist (Mark Alan Gordon), an Einstein incarnate, appears with a contraption for diagnosis and explains that the numbness is the absence of feeling. "It's pain," he says, "just in a different form."

Standing in the kitchen with her prickly teenage daughter, religiously devoted youngest daughter, and sensitive son, Margaret tries in vain to recall her life before the kids, the dishes, the dinner, and the arguments, as rain falls perpetually outside her perfect D.C. home. The script demands rain, rivers, and oceans, but Daniel Ostling and Michael Chybowski spare everyone the problematic water-onstage issue by using a flood of liquid lighting and languid sound, respectively. The fluidity among short scenes that make up a very long play effortlessly moves us through Margaret's life, from New York street artist—whose steamy one-night stand with a curious bystander leads to marriage—through flirtatious newlywed to embittered wife of a U.S. senator. Her breaking point creeps up after her mother dies, and as the revelation hits, the pearl necklace she's fingering breaks and the stones rain satisfyingly down the raked stage.

Gordon also provides the comic relief as Margaret's kindred spirit, an adorable Italian who promises her a job that will take her far away from her family and close to her passion for restoring ancient art. They bury their broken hearts in country music like drunks in a lonely-hearts club.

For all the Hollywood sentiment, in which destiny reigns and reality bites, McDonald suggests that when seemingly perfect lives crack and chip and the colors fade, it can be OK. Rather than being ostracized or killed off for leaving the kids, the house, her husband, and her "duties," Margaret remains the hero and the audience remains absorbed.

"When Grace Comes In," presented by and at La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Rd., La Jolla. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Aug. 4-Sept. 1. (858) 550-1010.

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