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Theatre Reviews Review: In Grace, a family discovers no justice in the legal system when it comes to sexual abuse

Rose Napoli, left, as Sarah, and Michaela Washburn as Grace.

  • Title: Grace
  • Written by: Jane Doe
  • Genre: Documentary play
  • Director: Andrea Donaldson
  • Actors: Rose Napoli, Michaela Washburn, Conrad Coates, Brenda Robins
  • Company: Nightwood Theatre
  • Venue: Streetcar Crowsnest
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To January 26

rating

It used to be fairly common for theatre critics who found an autobiographical play too personal or revealing to fall back on some variation of this criticism: That’s not art, it’s therapy. I believe I’ve accused a show or two of being “therapy” over the years myself.

Grace, a Nightwood Theatre production currently on at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto, is a new memoir-like play written by “Jane Doe” about her family’s experience with the legal system after her sister was raped at the age of 7 by the father of a friend.

And speaking directly to the audience, Sarah (Rose Napoli) – the pseudonym the unnamed playwright uses in the show – frets right from the start about how it will be viewed. “I don’t want this to be a therapy piece,” she says. “I have been saying that over and over, to pretty much anyone I discuss this with.”

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Grace, Sarah is clear with us right away, is a play about what her family went through – but also a play about creating a play. She’s wants to be able to tell the true story without re-traumatizing her younger sister, Grace (Michaela Washburn).

Grace’s case is complex and unusual because she is Canadian and the abuse she suffered happened in the United States.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

Her parents, Diana (Brenda Robins) and Steven (Conrad Coates), are skeptical at first. But Sarah tells Grace she can have total control over the final presentation, insert whatever text she wants whenever she wants to – and so she agrees to be a part of it. Grace’s creative writing balances out the documentary elements of the play.

Initially, Sarah decides she will stick to the facts for her part – and provides the audience with hard numbers about childhood sexual abuse and the odds stacked up against anyone who decides to go to the police about it.

It’s a myth that there’s such thing as a “perfect victim,” Sarah reminds us – and that turns out to be true when it comes to theatre as well.

Grace’s case is complex and unusual because she is Canadian and the abuse she suffered happened in the United States. She also told her psychologist and her family what happened nine years afterward – which isn’t unusual – but the combined physical and temporal distance between then and the assault create particular difficulties from a legal standpoint.

After months of promising to visit and interview Grace in Canada, for instance, the American police investigator on the file finally sends an e-mail confessing that she couldn’t get funding to travel to Toronto, and asking the teenager and her mother to travel to her.

The bleakness is accentuated by the spareness of Andrea Donaldson’s production.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

That’s just the first of many promises made to Grace and then broken despite what seems to be the best intentions of a police force and prosecution team that believes her. Grace, the play, is not hopeful or uplifting about the legal system – or, in this binational case, legal systems. (Grace’s parents, both lawyers, say they’ve entirely stopped using the term “justice system” since.)

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The bleakness is accentuated by the spareness of Andrea Donaldson’s production. The set consists of four chairs, a few microphones and giant projections (designed by Laura Warren) on the back wall that shift between dispassionate PowerPoint slides when Sarah’s in charge of the show and evocative billowing colours that overflow onto the stage floor when Grace takes over.

The performances Donaldson gets from her cast are strong. Robins impresses as an intellectual mother expert at restraining and harnessing her emotions – all the more moving because of it.

But Napoli is outstanding as Sarah, a young artist who, like so many in her generation, constantly distrusts her motives and checks her privilege. It can be hard to distinguish “wokeness” from self-absorption when dramatized, but you really see in her layered performance both the signalling and the genuine struggle.

As a drama or documentary, Grace is not satisfying in traditional ways because of the lengths Sarah goes to protect and champion her sister. It keeps details private. It only tells one “side” of the story. It doesn’t shy away from stats.

But Grace’s creation seems to have been helpful to Sarah and Grace’s family – and, in the end, the anonymously written play made me question many of my old assumptions about what theatre should be. What do critics really mean when they say a play shouldn’t be “therapy”? Are we saying that artists should not find the creation of art therapeutic – or that, if it is, there’s something unseemly in showing that to an audience? Do we still believe that an artist should bleed for her art – or, at least, that an audience should believe that she has? What real-world problems does that implicate us in?

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