Aren’t we all searching for grace? Perhaps so, but in Zoetic Stage’s second world premiere this season (and their second by a South Florida playwright!), Vanessa Garcia’s #Graced, its protagonist Catherine is doing so a bit more directly than most in a Lewis-and-Clark inspired odyssey across the United States, undertaken in part in her effort to cope with a recent divorce.
As an “influencer” tasked with driving up sales for the liquor distillery Monteverde, she’s also searching for particularly share-worthy content to post to Instagram, with an account recently renamed to @GracesponsoredbyMonteverde. And she and her very own Lewis, the son of Monteverde’s owner sent along to help keep said content in line and her occasional FWB, have also tasked themselves with what they see as the immense responsibility of discovering what it means to be an American today.
And though Catherine’s journey and by extension the play itself do have a meandering quality that ultimately seems to come at the expense of a tighter plot and more satisfying arc, #Graced remains an insightful, poetic, and occasionally hilarious take on that very question. To explore the quandary, the show draws from a rich tapestry of references to classic figures whose unique way of being an American looms large in our cultural consciousness, from Elvis Presley to Jack Kerouac.
Pictured – Sabrin Diehl, Lucy Lopez, Melissa Almaguer (Photo by: Justin Namon)
Notably, through its extensive exploration of Catherine’s heritage, #Graced also zooms in on what it means to be a Cuban-American, with all the complexity that identity entails. Referred to in the show’s playbill by Zoetic founder Stuart Meltzer as a deeply personal play for Garcia, the show covers a bit of the same ground as her more directly autobiographical Ich Bin Ein Berliner but goes deeper into its political implications.
For instance, Catherine’s visceral awareness of communism’s dark side, which springs from the trauma her family endured under Fidel Castro’s rule, puts her somewhat at odds with the anti-capitalist strain of thinking that has increasingly come to define the modern American left. In her eyes, to hate America, as “everyone” wants her to do these days, is not just to disrespect her country but to disrespect the tremendous effort that went into getting to this country, for her ancestors and for many like them.
But other dilemmas faced by the play’s characters—wanting to be loved “for real” rather than settling for vacant hookups, questioning one’s faith or sexuality, and trying to figure out who you really are amidst the pressure to look good for the gram and define yourself with a digestible set of hashtags—are probably relatable to a far broader subset of audience members.
Pictured Lucy Lopez (Photo by: Justin Namon)
In focusing on a protagonist whose life revolves around social media, the play also naturally comes face to face with its darker side, as seen when one character reflexively brings up likes when he should by all rights be offering sympathy, and, even more consequentially, when being featured in one of Catherine’s posts has devastating consequences for one of her subjects, a Uruguyan sandwich maker played with an impressively unsparing lack of sentimentality by Kristin Bikic.
And while this particular misstep is not easily remedied despite Catherine’s attempts to make up for her wrongdoing, she also manages to form genuine connections with at least two other characters who she first meets as potential subjects— a newly faithless runaway nun named Rosalie and a newly homeless queer teen named Blake.
Yet for all the deep discussion of wounds both visible and less so that ensues as these characters try to come to terms with their pasts and imagine their futures, there are also quite a few laughs along the way. For instance, one memorable scene between Catherine and Lewis centers on the unsexy aspects of life in a hot, cramped camper, and other particularly funny exchanges include those that highlight the generational differences between Blake and Catherine, with the former describing the latter as “so Gen X.”
However, despite a magnetic and fearless performance by actress Melissa Almaguer in the lead role, I occasionally found myself losing patience with Catherine as a character, feeling at points that her aimless lifestyle and disregard for consequences would have been more forgivable from a 20-something than a woman implied to be in at least her mid-thirties.
The entirely Latinx cast that brings this quirky bunch of characters to life also included Dalia Alemán, whose portrayal of Rosalie well encompasses the character’s transition from a reserved and steadfast woman to one who is also beginning to tap into a long-buried sensuality.
In Chris Anthony Ferrer’s Lewis, we can see both the qualities that make him so attractive to Catherine and the standoffishness that seems to have driven a wedge between them.
Melissa Almaguer, Chris Anthony Ferrer (Photo By: Justin Namon)
Then, in one of the play’s many welcome bursts of theatricality, actress Lucy Lopez appears most prominently as a chaotic energy called “Algorithmic Mayhem,” a role that encompasses a variety of things encountered on Catherine’s Instagram feed, from concerned parent to a inspo-spouting “@divorcebunny” to a literal ass-shaking donkey.
But perhaps the crowning moment of the evening belongs to Sabrín Diehl, a non-binary performer who not only nails Blake’s distinctive energy and attitude throughout, but lands a bravura moment as they speed their way through their delivery of a voicemail played on fast-forward. The animated social media screenscape brought to us by the work of Video Director Delavega and Steven Covey’s projection mapping also noticeably enhances the show’s storytelling, as does a simple but effective set by B. J. Duncan.
Dalia Aleman, Melissa Almaguer, Chris Anthony Ferrer (Photo By: Justin Namon)