29th April – 15th May 2018
The tiny but quaint Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court premiered their new play, Gracie March 29th. The 90-minute one-woman show is an expressive, powerful and confronting piece about the religious, polygamous FLDS community - The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The story centres on little girl Gracie, the youngest daughter in a constantly expanding family.
"God doesn’t talk to girls. But He listens. I pray for God to tell Mr. Shelby to find me a husband who’s sweet and kind and not too old."
At the start of the play, eight-year-old Gracie, played by Carla Langley, tells the audience how she and her family cross the US-Canada border, where they meet the impressive Mr. Shelby. The man promises her a bike and little Gracie can’t contain her enthusiasm. The family settles in in a friendly community in British Columbia, Canada. For the first time in her life, Gracie gets her own doll, from a neighbour called Allie, who soon becomes her best friend. She shares a bed with her older sister Marie, and watches how first her mother to Mr. Shelby and later oldest sister Celeste get married. Everything in Gracie’s life is finally wonderful. But as her brother falls out of grace with the community and leaves the family, things slowly start to crumble. As the blissfully ignorant, innocent Gracie ages, she finds out through events around her family and friends that not everything is as perfect as it seems in the FLDS community. And when Mr.Shelby eventually orders her to marry Stanley, an old man whom her sister Marie is already married to, Gracie’s world turns upside down. She has to choose: her family, or her freedom.
Gracie is based on a real community, spread over Arizona, Utah, Texas, South Dakota, Colorado, North Dakota and British Columbia. The FLDS is estimated to contain approximately 6,000-10,000 members, and it is still growing. The community is being led by a succession of men considered to be prophets, who often take up to thirty(!) wives. The higher the number in the ranking of wives, the higher the status of the woman. In this play, Mr. Shelby is considered one of the prophets, and Gracie’s mother becomes his 17th wife.
The time framing of the story is occasionally somewhat confusing, and you have to pay attention to the details in Gracie’s stories to understand how much time has passed between every anecdote. Often years pass between monologues without it being mentioned, which makes it sound like it all happens on the same day. Although this can be criticised, it also subtly represents the “normal,” daily life of the main character, which awakes a feeling of empathy for the character within the audience and makes the story more believable.
A little adjustment is needed in the beginning if you’re not used to plays with only one player, but Gracie is a captivating story that sucks you in deeper and deeper throughout the play. Carla Langley jumps around the stage in Gracie’s shoes with an extraordinary amount of passion and energy. Her expressions and gestures making you feel as if you are there in Canada with Gracie. The stories she tells are detailed and visual. For every dialogue and other character Langley introduces in Gracie’s world, she uses subtle differences such as stance, dialect and tone of voice to give you a clear impression of the person’s character and charisma.
The triangular-shaped theatre is extremely small, with approximately fifty seats available around the “stage”- a performing area with a small platform in the middle. The intimate setting is dreamlike and confronting: Gracie’s lively personality is inescapable. The lighting on stage is simplistic yet effective, with warmer tones set on the stage during daytime, summer and positive moments, and colder, white tones during emotional scenes. The play utilises the small platform with one string of LED rope lights, that light up as the only source of light in the dark during the emotional height of the play. Within the few interludes in the play, the stage becomes completely dark, and loud church music can be heard throughout the room, resulting in an eerie and ominous atmosphere. Just like the lighting, the costume design is simplistic too. Langley wears a long, old pink dress with buttons, which Gracie nervously plays with whenever she feels anxious. It works perfectly within the setting.
Gracie is a simplistic, yet emotionally powerful play. It’s intimate setting and absolutely absurd context of its real-life inspiration causes for a dreamlike storytelling that pulls you in, but it stays brutally honest in how humans deal with the primal emotion of fear: with courage, but also with even more fear. The play ends on an emotional yet hopeful note, and leaves you gruesomely aware that there are still people - in particular women - living like this in the world.