Common Grace delivers plenty of heart and a whole lot of judgment

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      By Shauna Johannesen. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Friday, January 29. Continues until February 14

      There’s a hole in this script, right where its meaning should be.

      In playwright Shauna Johannesen’s Common Grace, Colleen returns to her small B.C. community to attend her dad’s funeral. Colleen had an affair with a married guy named Mark, and we soon find out that she fled to Edmonton several months earlier when Mark and his wife, Abby, decided to work things out.

      One way or another, stories are about the struggle to learn. There are lots of variations on the theme, but, in the basic mechanics, the protagonist encounters challenges and either gains enough insight to overcome the obstacles in their way, in which case the story ends happily, or the protagonist fails to gain enough insight, and the story ends in defeat.

      If you think that’s reductive, consider what goes wrong in Common Grace. Basically, everybody is awful to poor, beleaguered Colleen. She makes a strong case that she was in love with Mark, but her judgmental mother Carol, her snippy sister Miriam, and the furious Abby all slut shame Colleen so busily you’d think they were auditioning for roles in a sequel to The Scarlet Letter.

      Colleen’s understanding of her actions doesn’t change in any significant way. She’s right at the beginning and she stays right: she followed her heart, and for good reason. The major movement that does take place occurs because the secondary characters gradually come to see the error of their ways. They forgive Colleen or they explain why her choices made them feel vulnerable. So there’s action on the periphery, but the centre is static—and that’s why Common Grace feels hollow, more of a justification than an exploration.

      To be fair, Colleen does change on one front: she reassesses Mark. But take a look at the guy’s behaviour. How hard is he to figure out?

      Within this odd vehicle, playwright Johannesen does thoroughly grounded and credible work playing Colleen. And Rebecca deBoer is mesmerizing as Abby. The Act 2 scene between these two is the best in the play. But, in that exchange, which character is the most heroic? Hint: it ain’t Colleen. DeBoer is excellent—and she has the most to play.

      Then again, Julie Lynn Mortensen is consistently credible as Miriam, and that character is a one-dimensional jerk. Kerri Norris goes in and out of authenticity as Carol, the mom, and Robert Gary Haacke does the same as Mark. And Cara Cunningham overacts a tad in the essentially comic role of Alanna, the youngest sister. Carl Kennedy, who can apparently do no wrong as an actor, plays Dan, a pastor and family friend. Kennedy is charming, but the character’s insistence that Colleen is somehow responsible for everybody else’s reactivity is a conceptual box canyon.

      Carolyn Rapanos’s kitchen set disappoints. Are those blue-and-white squares supposed to be Danish tiles? The look like they were painted by children.

      There’s wit in Common Grace. And heart. There are pleasing rhythms. But too much of the responsibility is in the wrong place.