Review: Ministry of Grace, playing at Belfry, an insightful depiction of race relations

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In the new play The Ministry of Grace, which just opened at the Belfry Theatre, a young First Nations mother is compelled to abandon her children in a Canadian residential school to take work in southern California. By chance, the woman is enlisted to join a travelling tent ministry, where she’s featured as a “noble savage” — an Indian who can actually read the Bible.

This highly original tale is inspired by the true story of Tara Beagan’s grandmother. Beagan, a Toronto playwright of Ntlala’pamux and Irish descent, was unaware of this family history until relatively recently, when her mother mentioned it.

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The Ministry of Grace, which had its world première Thursday night, is a singular play told through an unusual lens. Although it’s hampered by a too-long first act (the play only truly catches fire in Act II), Beagan has some success in creating a layered, nuanced drama with comic touches.

One can trace The Ministry of Grace’s roots back to Canadian playwright George Ryga’s seminal 1967 play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. Beagan’s 135-minute play is also about a young woman who, fending for herself, battles racism so dehumanizing, it’s like being tossed into the cogs of a monstrous machine. There are also echoes of John Steinbeck in the drama’s sprawling narrative, which portrays the underclass — poor white as well as First Nations — struggling to live, love and retain dignity in a world that’s often heartless and violent.

The play, directed by Beagan, is set about 1950. When Mary (P.J. Prudat) meets Brother Cain (Stafford Perry), a travelling minister, she’s clutching a shovel in self defence — a stark symbol of her predicament. She’s just lost her job as a labourer in California.

When Cain discovers to his amazement that Mary can read, he hires her to join what’s more of a travelling sideshow than a bona-fide ministry. Mary — whom he renames Grace — becomes part of the act, a Bible-reading Indian who’s been miraculously “saved.”

Cain is more snake-oil salesman than man of God — he’s mostly interested in making a quick buck. Behind the scenes, he’s a flask-swilling boozer having a clandestine affair with a naïve waif, Lizzie Mae (Lara Schmitz). We also meet one of the sideshow’s workhands, Clem (Sheldon Elter), a stout-hearted mountain of a man who becomes increasingly infatuated with Mary.

Clem is yet another moniker dreamed up by the boss — his real name is Joseph. We have, therefore, a couple named Mary and Joseph. Meanwhile, Cain shares his name with one of the Bible’s more infamous figures, a man condemned to a life of wandering

This might be a touch heavy-handed — nonetheless, subtle layers and eddies swirling within The Ministry of Grace give it depth. Mary is herself a product of Canada’s residential-school system.

Yet far from renouncing Catholicism, she integrates Christian values into her First Nations belief system. This fascinating ability is curiously moving — and in thematic terms, suggests a humanity that transcends the flaws of colonial belief systems.

Mary is a mystical healer who employs traditional First Nations methods to cure the sick, regardless of race. Such selflessness occurs despite the fact she’s shunned as a lesser being. For instance, she’s relegated to sleeping alone under a blanket in the back of a truck because white employees refuse to share sleeping quarters with her.

The play’s title is a play on words. As a healer, Mary/Grace administers to everyone: Clem, having fallen prey to a colonialist war, has shrapnel in his shoulder; Brother Cain grapples with a mysterious psychosomatic throat ailment; Lizzie Mae ultimately suffers a savage assault that almost kills her. The fact Mary appears to physically absorb the ailments of the afflicted adds a Christ-like sense of sacrifice.

On Thursday, the first act seemed too lengthy and too loosely written. It didn’t quite coalesce; the pacing was halting and the acting was sometimes awkward.

This improved significantly in Act II. What helps pull the action together is a never-quite-consummated romance between Clem and Mary. Here the actors were at their best. Prudat finally found her groove as Mary, making her a three-dimensional character, bringing out her intelligence, humanity and dignity.

Elter also sprang to life in the latter half, delivering a keystone performance. A big man with an imposing presence, he’s a performer capable of exuding charisma. Elter also revealed a comic knack, displaying deft timing and a clever way with physical humour.

Andy Moro’s evocative, rather claustrophobic sets provide both front and backstage perspectives on Brother Cain’s travelling sideshow, complete with a full-size pickup truck and campers. Jeff Chief’s sharply observed period costumes are sweet and simple.

The Ministry of Grace has gone through a long gestation. Beagan reportedly worked on it for a decade — the script has gone through 17 drafts. Further tinkering and tightening is needed before it reaches full potential.

Yet in its present form, the play is still an intriguing and worthwhile offering. The Ministry of Grace provides an insightful, thoughtful — and above all, deeply human — look at a subject that today remains as politically charged as ever.

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