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Apollo's Grace

The year 1969 was an unusually turbulent one in American history. Vietnam, Chappaquidick, Woodstock and Stonewall all made their mark, as did Neil Armstrong when he stepped out of Apollo 11 and planted man's first footsteps on the moon.

On the steps of a dilapidated South Carolina plantation, Cat Hampton Mansfield (Jill Suzette Lanza) recalls a story she made up for her sister, Keats (Mason Alexander), about the sun god, Apollo, and how the Fates tricked mortals into stealing Apollo's light. Angry at the deception, Apollo smashed the sun to pieces and plunged the world into darkness. Eventually, by his grace, the sun was pulled back together, but the world was left with days divided in half between darkness and light.

This line between science and myth, reality and fantasy, theoretically forms the base for Apollo's Grace, the second work of playwright/actress Alexander. Set in July 1969, during the heady days of the Apollo space mission, it deals with a pair of estranged sisters trying to reconnect following the mysterious drowning death of their mother.

It's a promising, even intriguing, basis for a story--and the Apollo imagery is lovely--but as a playwright, Alexander doesn't yet have the skill to fulfill that promise. Virtually every opportunity to examine a character's motives or deepen our understanding of them is thwarted by the piling on of additional plot points, most of which prove useless and distracting. And two characters--Big Eddie Guignard (director Ian Bowater on the night reviewed) and Little Eddie Guignard (Brock Lacey, in a double-cast role)--have no discernible reason for even existing. They don't advance the plot, they don't offer comic relief, and they're only peripherally involved in the action. Without a purpose they shouldn't be there.

Presenting the era itself also proves problematic. The '60s were a distinctly identifiable time period visually, verbally and musically. Alexander uses period tunes to aid in transitions and to comment on scenes, which works fine as far as it goes. But other problems remain. Nancy Cone's costumes are hit-and-miss, both for the era and the weather. (Cargo pants? A midriff-baring top? A long-sleeved sweatshirt on a sweltering summer day in the south?) And the language and tone of the play are oddly bland and occasionally inappropriate, as when a black character refers to his bookstore as "African-American." Sorry, but authenticity and political correctness cannot comfortably co-exist.

Bowater's slow-paced direction is yet another hindrance, as is Tirzah Tyler's non-descript lighting and the generally shallow, self-conscious performances of the cast. But the set design by Bowater and James Tupper (based on an original concept by Daniel C. Cowan) works well, showcasing a family's lost hope in every inch of cracked wood and peeling paint. If only the prospect of renewed hope, symbolized by Apollo 11, had been as effectively conveyed.

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