But for the Grace...
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
August 10, 2008
11% of households in the United States are considered "food insecure." That's shocking and appalling and, to be honest, I had no idea so many people in this country were hungry until I saw But for the Grace... This one-man show is all about a food pantry and it was commissioned by the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Compelling statistics are intermixed with the stories of 11 different characters, based on real people that playwright/director David Eliet interviewed. But for the Grace..., though somewhat lacking theatrically, is a very informative piece about an often overlooked (and underestimated) social problem.
What I liked best about the play is that not only does it call much needed attention to this problem, but it then gives us ideas of ways we can help. One of the characters is an elderly gentleman who volunteers once a week at the Food Bank. A teenage girl who does the same is also mentioned. And though never explicitly stated, it is made clear nonetheless that it is ordinary people donating food and money that keep such institutions running. But for the Grace... also draws attention to a flawed governmental system that allows so many to go hungry.
Performer Bob Jaffe creates some very interesting, real characters. His best portrayals include Vic, a father who was diagnosed with Parkinson's at a young age and is now unable to work and support his family, and the minister Frederick Olmstead (whose congregation started a food pantry) who speaks with an odd mix of pride and sadness about how many people pass through its doors. Other characters are less believable, in particular a seven-year-old boy and an elderly Russian immigrant woman. Still others are just incongruous with, and detrimental to, the rest of the play. I had no idea what a vaudevillian apartment auctioneer and a clown telling unfunny "jokes" about hunger and mildly attacking the audience had to do with this food bank. Their presence felt like unsuccessful attempts at levity, and they did not provide another perspective or realistic voice.
While Jaffe plays 11 characters, many others are mentioned. He flips through dozens and dozens of manila folders, throwing out names and a few key statistics before tossing them on the ground. Later, he does the same for the women of the food pantry, this time with shirts. Then come photos of children, who are identified by their Food Bank number, also tossed indecorously on the floor. Perhaps throwing these on the ground is supposed to serve as a metaphor for how the world treats these people, but it didn't seem that way. Also, by using people's clothing, it implies they're dead, which is not the case, and I felt like these parts of the plays were trying to manipulate my emotions. With a huge social issue like this, facts and truth are much more powerful than theatrical tricks.
Indeed the two most compelling parts of the play for me came not from the characters but from Jaffe's narration that is the throughline of the play. One was hearing statistics about how much hunger has increased (and food bank reserves decreased) in the past three years. And the other was when Jaffe unpacked a shopping basket and showed us exactly what one month's ration of food looks like.