REVIEW: Purple Rose Theatre’s ‘Morning After Grace’ has heart and humor, but also a heavy hand

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Randolph Mantooth and Michelle Mountain in the world premiere production of Carey Crim’s “Morning After Grace” at the Purple Rose Theatre. (Sean Carter Photography)

Retirement can, in some ways, feel like a second adolescence. You’ve got time to pursue your passions and focus on yourself; you can experiment and make some adventurous choices; and if you’re single, you can take home someone you just met and let hormones take the wheel.

The latter happens in Carey Crim’s “Morning After Grace,” now having its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre.

For after attending a funeral the previous day, retired lawyer Angus (Randolph Mantooth, of John Gage/”Emergency” fame) wakes up in his Florida condo with Abigail (Michelle Mountain), who’s wearing nothing but a comforter on his couch. When Abigail goes looking for her missing clothing, she stumbles upon a woman’s dry cleaning in a closet, causing her to believe that Angus has a wife.

But before she can get a cab to come out to the Amelia Island retirement community, a neighbor and former professional baseball player, Oliver (Lynch Travis), drops in to introduce himself to Angus and offer condolences. But an incorrect assumption – one of many – leads the three to spend a strange, sometimes funny, sometimes painful few hours in each other’s company.

There are some winning comic moments in “Morning,” and its three seasoned, polished actors – guided by director Guy Sanville – play off each other well; but Crim ultimately relies a bit too heavily on forced misunderstandings and narrative devices – to the point where you’re aware of seeing the writer’s hand at work far more than you’re swept away in (what should feel like) an organic story. [To avoid spoiler alerts of any kind, you may wish to skip the next two paragraphs.]

For instance, when Abigail finds women’s clothing in Angus’ closet, she never considers the idea that he might be a widower (an oversight made doubly strange when we find out Abigail’s profession), among other possible reasons; Oliver’s first initial – not to mention his carefully constructed lines concerning his friendship with Angus’ wife – cause Angus to fly into a rage, despite the fact that the true guilty party would likely never show up at Angus’ door; Oliver happens to know Abigail, and when she’s out of the room, Oliver’s reference to her being a “professional” causes Angus to jump to the wrong conclusion about her job; and Angus, after vehemently, rationally arguing against “signs” from the universe, is, of course, converted by a natural moment of beauty.

Plus, Angus, at one point, says to Oliver, “Why are you still here?” And it’s a question I’d asked myself throughout the two hour show. Though Oliver provides his personal story, as well as a reason for lingering in a stranger’s home on this particular day, the explanation ultimately rings hollow – particularly given the obvious discomfort of a post-coital atmosphere. But Angus eventually hauls out his wife’s leftover medicinal marijuana, and the three get high, and then get real.

So “Morning,” in the end, feels as though it’s constructed with too heavy a hand. But Travis, playing a gay man who must finally confront his intolerant father, does fine work while providing a thoughtful, objective, and often funny foil for both Angus and Abigail. Mountain makes Abigail cerebral, but also simultaneously mature and girlish – so that when she wakes up naked in Angus’ apartment, she nearly squeals with glee when telling a girlfriend about it by phone.

Mantooth (who last performed on the Purple Rose’s stage via “Superior Donuts” in 2012) has the most complicated emotional journey of the three, playing an aging man who’s been unmoored by what he learns about the woman with whom he’s spent his life. Indeed, the most moving moment of the show comes when Angus is finally left alone in his condo, after arguing with Abigail. He pulls his wife’s garment from a trash bag, holds it to his face, and crumples in grief; and in this quiet, simple moment, Mantooth ably conveys that no matter what complications follow loss, the loss itself is inescapable.

Set designer Bartley H. Bauer nails the neutral-toned, bland tastefulness of a retirement condo that looks like a walk-through model rather than someone’s lived-in home. With a modern, well-appointed kitchen area that runs along the back of the set, a breakfast bar, and matching couches, chairs, and a huge leather ottoman, the scene is meticulously set, illuminated beautifully by lighting designer Dana L. White. Shelby Newport designed the costumes, which involve not only the three actors, but also Angus’ wife, who only appears on-stage via her clothing. And sound designer Tom Whalen, and props designer Danna Segrest, provide atmospheric details that keep the story rooted in our all-too-familiar world.

Sanville directs the show with an eye toward balancing its humor and drama; and I appreciated “Morning”‘s restrained, more muted endpoint – an apt coda for a story about aging, loss, love and marriage, and purpose. Yet what precedes that final scene generally feels too labored, narratively speaking, so that this final scene gets emotionally undercut. When we can see the wizard behind the curtain – which is to say, in this instance, the playwright pulling the narrative strings – what initially looks like magic begins to seem like a series of tricks.

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