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Texas premiere for new Parks play

Claire Canavan

"Don't Fence Me In" is a classic cowboy song about freedom. In this song, a fence is something that can trap a person and prevent him from roaming free. But a fence can also be built as protection, as a way to keep people out.

Both kinds of fences are at play in "The Book of Grace," the newest play from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, now receiving its Texas premiere at Zach Theatre.

"The Book of Grace" premiered last year at New York's Public Theater, under the direction of James Macdonald, but Zach Theatre's version is directed by Parks herself. Parks, whose work is often celebrated for its lively and rhythmic use of language, tweaked the script a bit and reworked the play for this new production.

The opening fugue, in which the three main characters announce who they are, vibrates with energy. Vet (Eugene Lee) is the gruff and bombastic father, a border patrol agent obsessed with security. Vet's wife, Grace (Nadine Mozon), is sunny and hopeful, the one who tries to see the good in life. And Buddy (Shaun Patrick Tubbs) is Vet's angry and troubled son who hasn't forgiven his father for "unspeakable" acts in the past.

"The Book of Grace" is set inside the family's home in West Texas. Projected images of a border fence surround the audience, trapping us in this location, to witness this family's unraveling drama. Buddy returns home after a long absence, and the animosity between himself and his father is palpable, dangerous. In one scene, Vet frisks him to make sure he's not armed. Grace, Buddy's stepmother, tries to be the peacemaker.

As the play unfolds, each character has a story he or she wants to tell a larger audience. Vet practices a speech he'll be giving to the border patrol community as he accepts an award for a major immigrant bust. Grace continues to add to her secret "Book of Grace," a collection of small moments that provide "evidence of good things." And Buddy changes his name to "Snake" and starts composing his own manifesto that he hopes to post on the Web.

The actors tackle the drama whole-heartedly. Lee's Vet is a terrifying yet recognizable human being. Lee, with his deeply resonant voice, gives a powerful performance. Mozon plays Grace as full of exuberant energy yet hauntingly vulnerable underneath. And Tubbs gives a focused, tightly wound performance as a son on the verge of explosion.

Like many of Parks' plays, this one is steeped in allegory and contains familial drama, violence, and allusions to American history. The play's final chapter is a harrowing one that hits the audience like a punch to the gut.

"The Book of Grace" itself crosses borders. It moves back and forth between the gritty realism of American domestic drama and a more presentational style evident in the way the characters directly address the audience, the way Grace announces the cleverly named titles of each chapter, and the overt symbolism of borders and fences.

It's a show that isn't easy on the audience. You have to pay attention, listen and be willing to follow the characters to some dark places. The reward is a compelling, superbly acted, thought-provoking play and a chance to experience Parks' newest contribution to the contemporary theater.

'The Book of Grace'

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through July 10

Where: Zach Theatre's Whisenhunt Stage, 1510 Toomey Road

Cost: $20-$34

Information: www.zachtheatre.org