THERE will be few more compelling stage performances this year than that delivered by Carla Langley in Gracie.
For 90 minutes, this pocket dynamo of an actor takes us through seven years in the life of Gracie, from age 8 to 15. A journey that takes her physically from the United States to Canada and back again. But much more besides.
The beginning marks a new stage in Gracie’s life as her mother is married to Mr Shelby, a man of 17 wives already. Shelby is a member of religious cult the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Polygamy and vast quantities of children are sure fire ways to find milk and honey waiting in heaven.
Bringing with her nothing more than purple coloured letters that spell out her name, she is thrilled when she is given a doll (Tanya) by Aly who becomes her friend. Even more so when Shelby curries her favour with a new bike – ‘thank you Jesus, thank you Mr Shelby’. A bike that is purple with gold streamers.
Through Gracie, we slowly learn the fate of the rest of the family as they adapt to their home and community. Mother is nothing more than a provider of children (Justin, Emma and at the end another on the way) irrespective of what rapid and repeated child bearing may do to her own health. Shelby is only interested in the milk and honey.
Gracie’s older sister Celeste is married off to Shelby’s oldest Son Jamie immediately in the wake of his 18th marriage. A child, Roberta, shortly follows.
Billy, the eldest sibling, is no more than a provider of cheap labour and soon rebels. Marie, Gracie’s second sister, is eventually married to Stanley – Shelby’s brother. When no children follow, Gracie is told to become Stanley’s wife – Shelby stating that this is a command from God that was delivered to him in a dream. Aged just 15, will she comply or rebel?
Through Gracie, we learn of the hostility towards the religious community shown by locals. We also realise how poorly educated she is as she is asked which country she came from. ‘Texas?’ is her reply. Despite the rigidity of the group she belongs to, she finds time to ride out on horse Triumph and discovers a friend in Brandon who sings to her. Beautiful moments under the threatening polygamy clouds that scurry her way.
This is a powerful story told through the eyes, ears and voice of Gracie. An innocent young flower who has been brought up to love Jesus. Langley, diminutive, is quite magnificent with no props other than a triangular platform to help her.
She sits on it, stands and lies on it and strides across it (hats off to Nicky Griffiths, movement). Her performance is so mesmeric that it sucks you in. It is so good that you do not want the play to end when it does. What subsequently happened to Gracie? Did she maintain her religious core?
Langley, wearing grubby clothes, gets the American drawl off to a tee. Close your eyes for a moment and you can be convinced that she has been accompanied on stage by the plethora of other characters (voices) she plays.
Gracie is a strong play (written by Canadian prize winning playwright Joan MacLeod) which is superbly directed by Gemma Aked-Priestley. Special mentions should also be given to Bex Kemp who delivers an effective pared down set and comes up with great costume design. Both the music (Sam Glossop) and lighting (dimmed to mark the passage of time) add to, rather than distract from, Langley’s performance (lighting by Ali Hunter).
But the real star of this great work of fiction is Carla Langley. This actor’s star is very much in the ascendancy. A Sheridan Smith in the making. A tour de force. Heavenly.
Catch Gracie if you can. Another triumph for Finborough Theatre, in association with Tanzanite Theatre.
Gracie runs until May 15
Images by Sophie Stevens