Theatre Review: Doug Vincent’s A Day for Grace
To call playwright Doug Vincent’s show A Day for Grace harrowing is an understatement. Exploring the events of a hardscrabble Virginia childhood that culminated in his alcoholic father’s suicide, along with those events’ many ramifications, Vincent plays himself as well as a Greek chorus of family members whose take on events don’t always sync with his own: those multiple perspectives shed considerable light on the kind of baggage he brought into the delivery room the day his daughter Grace was born. We know beforehand that despite what could have been an equally harrowing scene at her birth, Grace survived, but even that knowledge doesn’t spare the audience from an emotional roller coaster ride. After a sold-out run at New York’s Stage Left Studio, Vincent is returning it to his native Colorado at a venue still to be determined.
Vincent is a gifted and extremely entertaining storyteller. Early on, his depiction of his childhood emulation of the future Hall of Fame catcher from the Cincinnati Reds is delivered suspensefully, with a deft touch not unlike a baseball broadcaster recounting events as they happen in real time. But even more than he wants to be like Johnny Bench, the young Vincent wants to be like his dad. With one problem: dad’s “medicine” for a persistent physical ailment comes in a can labeled Pabst Blue Ribbon. When grandma comes over with her 40-ounce Colt .45, dad requires even stronger medicine, in the form of Canadian Mist. Vincent’s description of family interaction at moments like these is surprisingly elegant, without the least bit of the kind of mawkishness that typifies so many autobiographical works. Much as this must have been problematic, to say the least, Vincent never lapses into cliche, nor does he play the blame game. Instead, gallows humor is what pulls him through, something he no doubt picked up from his doomed father.
As the show’s segments shift, Sam Llanas – former frontman of popular Wisconsin roots rockers the BoDeans – does his part as Greek chorus with his acoustic guitar and warm baritone voice, singing excerpts from songs including the BoDeans’ brooding classic Far, Far Away from My Heart as well as several numbers from his 1998 cult classic cd A Good Day to Die, by the short-live side project Absinthe [#629 on the 1000 Best Albums of All Time list here – ed.]. Written to memorialize the teenage suicide of his older brother, the pieces from that song cycle used here have had their lyrics tweaked to fit the new context, and add considerable depth and gravitas to the overall ambience.
While Vincent’s father’s suicide is described in graphic detail, it’s the emotional impact that resonates more shockingly. Certain sounds and behaviors become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggers for Vincent, culminating with his wife’s struggles as his unborn daughter’s life hangs in the balance. At this past Saturday’s show, as the suspense reached breaking point, Vincent was literally moved to tears recalling how events unfolded: several audience members were overcome by emotion as well. Sometimes the drama of real life surpasses anything contrived for the stage.
One tantalizing aspect of the show, one which sadly won’t be missed by anyone who doesn’t know Sam Llanas’ more obscure catalog, is that his songs sometimes get cut short. Like Vincent, Llanas is also a first-rate storyteller, and there were points where songs like the haunting, down-and-out saga It Don’t Bother Me and the majestically angst-driven, Orbisonesque anthem Messed Up Likes of Us were about to reach their denouement…and then they were over. On one hand, Vincent deserves considerable credit for making such an apt pairing of music and monologue: on the other, those familiar with the Absinthe record will be left longing for more. During the New York run, Llanas played a series of intimate club dates; perhaps the same could be done the next time the show is staged. Otherwise, it couldn’t hurt to extend the work by, say, fifteen minutes, to let Llanas’ grim sagas sink in as impactfully as Vincent’s narrative.