About halfway through Craig Wright’s Grace, Sam (Michael Shannon) explains his job to Steve (Paul Rudd). He works for NASA, helping to purify the information they are receiving through probes in the solar system—“radio waves, X-rays, gamma rays, all kinds of energy” interfere with the information, so it is often corrupted by the time it reaches the earth. Steve, friendly but not too bright, replies, “I loved Apollo 13.” Sam, undeterred, explains further: “That’s what space is to most people, it’s Apollo 13. Tom Hanks. 2001. It’s ‘outer space.’ To me, in my job, space is space. It’s distance. Space is a tremendous distance that you have to get information across in time. That’s the problem with space. How can we know what we need to know—in time—when what we need to know has to come from so far away.”
This is the central problem of the play, which chronicles how four characters are meant to react to a universe that raises questions without offering accessible or timely answers. Sam, who lost his fiancée in a car accident that left half of his own face scarred, tends to remain sequestered in his own apartment, having given up on life; Steve, who is preparing to open a chain of gospel-themed hotels (“Sonrise Hotels”), embraces the light and love of Jesus Christ; his wife, Sara (Kate Arrington), is theologically (and romantically) stuck somewhere in between the two men. Then, somewhat peripherally, there is their exterminator Karl (Ed Asner), who grew up in Hamburg during Nazi Germany. After the death of both his parents, he was forced first to give up and then rape a Jewish girl who was hiding in his home. (“My first kiss…”) To this day he is a devout atheist. “I got some news for you,” he tells Steve. “One, there’s no Jesus. Two, there’s no God.”
“In time” is perhaps the most important phrase in Sam’s speech, for Grace begins with time running in reverse. When the play opens, the three lay dead on the floor. Gunshots ring out and they get up one by one. Steve, it seems, has murdered both and then committed suicide. Before shooting his wife, he cries, “I want to go back, Sara!” Her last words are “We can’t.” Mr. Wright toys with space as well: though Sam’s apartment is next door to Steve and Sara’s, onstage they overlap. This means that while the couple celebrates a victory at work for Steve, Sam sits next to them, staring into his computer, occasionally screaming or thanking fucking Jesus that they have turned off the gospel pop. More significantly, when Sara is left home alone, Sam is in fact looking right at her.
Of course, Steve, Sara, and Sam are never given answers—as is right. Despite an opening that seems to seal the fate of all the main characters, Mr. Wright’s play nevertheless navigates a skillful ambiguity. And though the entire cast is first-rate, Mr. Shannon cannot help but stand out. Hands are often the most difficult of an actor’s tools (Hamlet must advise his players not to “saw the air / too much” with them), and yet Mr. Shannon’s are endlessly watchable. In one scene, he explains to Sara that the day his fiancée died, the two were in the middle of a fight. She wanted to visit her mother, he didn’t, so he forced her to drive. On the road, she began crying, and cruelly he said, “You wanted to go”—his last words to her. Repeating it, replaying it in his mind, “You wanted to go,” Mr. Shannon shapes each word with his fingers before gently brushing them away. It is an inconspicuous action, one you could miss if you weren’t watching closely, but the delicacy and intelligence of this choice recalls Marlon Brando picking up Eva Marie Saint’s glove, or guiding Rod Steiger’s gun down as he purrs, “Charlie…” It is one of the most tender moments in the theater this year—and Grace, one of the best new plays.