In one magical night in an imagined New York City kitchen, the endearing, streetwise, and world-weary characters of Grace Paley‘s short stories, set in generations past, are given new resonance in a theatrical production.
“States of Grace,” which recently had its world premiere in Boston, is tender and funny, played by actors and deftly crafted, lifelike puppets. Set in the 1980s, the play opens as Faith, the protagonist-writer of many of Paley’s stories, confronts the typewriter on her kitchen table, and a floor full of crumpled, discarded first pages.
As she grows ever more frustrated, she is visited by Paley’s other characters, including Ruthie, her lifelong friend, played by a puppet who pops out of the kitchen cupboard. “We live in a world with lots of conversation but very little change,” Faith confides to Ruthie. “What do I write about?”
“I would like you to write a simple story,” the puppet of Faith’s aging father implores, as he critiques her meandering tales. Taken from Paley’s story “Conversations With My Father,” it is among the most poignant scenes created by Debra Wise, who conceived and wrote the play and stars as Faith.
Also making appearances onstage are Jack, Faith’s companion, who emerges from the refrigerator in a Murphy bed; and Iz, his daughter Cissy, and grandson Emanuel, from the story “Zagrowsky Tells,” a redemptive tale of a grandfather who overcomes his prejudice to love his black grandchild.
Wise, director of the Underground Railway Theater, a community-based theater company near Boston, was first drawn to Paley’s writing during her college days, in the 1970s. Paley’s engagement with politics was part of what was inspiring, Wise told Lilith. Over the years, Wise found herself drawn back to Paley’s stories for the ways Paley connected politics, family and culture.
“She didn’t compartmentalize,” Wise says. “She’s a mother, a writer, an activist in the peace movement.” But it wasn’t until she was reading aloud to her husband from Paley’s collections The Little Disturbances of Man (1958), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974) and Later the Same Day (1985) that Wise was inspired to transform Paley’s writing into theater.
“I love the way in which Jewish culture is expressed in her voice,” Wise observes. “You hear the music of her family life in her writing.” Wise skillfully captures Grace Paley’s actual speaking voice — distinctive, accented, sometimes staccato, always warm.
Wise hopes to take States of Grace on the road. For information visit www.undergroundrailwaytheater.org.