Theater / Film

Review: Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of ‘#Graced’ is a journey worth taking

Written By Christine Dolen
May 9, 2023 at 1:07 PM

Melissa Almaguer and Chris Anthony Ferrer hit the road for a journey of discovery in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced” at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater through Sunday, May 21. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Figuring out who you are, making sense of your past, charting a course toward the future – that’s a journey that can last a lifetime, or it can come at just the right life-changing moment.

That’s what Catherine (Melissa Almaguer), the peripatetic heroine of Vanessa Garcia’s world premiere play “#Graced,” has decided to do in the wake of her recent divorce.  With the financial backing of a hipster booze brand called Monteverde Moonshine, the determined Cuban-American influencer (who goes by “Cat”) is setting off on a cross-country RV trip to discover what being an American means in today’s social media-dominated world.

And if she finds a reset button for her life, so much the better.

Sabrín Diehl talks to Kristin Bikic about making a social media-ready sandwich as Melissa Alamaguer is ready to capture the moment in “#Graced.”
(Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Produced by Miami’s Zoetic Stage in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, “#Graced” represents another step in Garcia’s continuing growth and impact as a playwright.  It’s clever, often funny, sardonic, poignant, insightful.  Carefully researched, the play references the ways social media can commodify, elevate or destroy our fellow human beings. Or us.

After their long-running success with the immersive “The Amparo Experience,” Garcia teamed up again with director Victoria Collado, her creative partner in the duo’s Abre Camino Collective, for “#Graced.”  Sarah Hughes, who worked with Garcia on an earlier version of the script at New York’s WP Theater Lab, also directed this world premiere. Whatever the directors’ collaborative process was in the rehearsal room, it works: The play moves like an Airstream on a pothole-free highway.

Cat, who has a secret agenda in addition to the aforementioned ones, has a companion for the journey, which launches in Tallahassee.  Lewis (Chris Anthony Ferrer), son of the Monteverde owner, was born in Argentina but came to the United States with his widower dad at nine, and he’s now as American as Key lime pie, country music and moonshine (all obsessions of his father and American stepmom).  He’s the hookup for the trip’s funding, Cat’s on-the-road editor (though she bristles at the notion of him making any changes in her posts) and her now-and-again lover.

Melissa Almaguer turns Chris Anthony Ferrer into click bait in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced.” (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Projected social media posts blend with the duo’s real-life encounters, sometimes chaotically (among the many characters played by Lucy Lopez is one dubbed Algorithmic Mayhem).

In New Orleans, they meet a former nun named Rosalie (Dalia Alemán), and after a tragedy, they take her on as a traveling companion whose Tinder-assisted awakening to a few of life’s long-denied pleasures – sex, drugs – happens in short order.

Near Memphis, Cat encounters 16-year-old Blake (Sabrín Diehl), a sharp-tongued, confused teen whose father has run off with his French mistress.  Blake has been following #Graced, and she leads Cat to another post-worthy encounter: a stand where an Uruguayan immigrant named Gianni (Kristian Bikic) makes chivitos, his country’s crazy-popular national sandwich. Everything is friendly and mutually beneficial until a one-word slip-up in Cat’s post threatens everything Gianni has built in the United States.

Cat and company finally do make it to her non-negotiable destination – a convent in the Dakotas.  Turns out her mother was among the more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children who were sent to the United States from 1960 to 1962 in a Catholic Welfare Bureau program called Operación Pedro Pan.  Cat’s mom – whose name was Grace – had never wanted to talk about her time at the convent and then with a foster family.

Lucy Lopez plays the older Elvis and other characters in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced.”
(Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

But Cat, wanting to fill in the pieces of a puzzle no one else is left to assemble, persists.  And her familial enlightenment shifts something in her, leading to this lovely expression of understanding, closure and unbreakable bonds near the end of the play:  “My grandmother is Cuba. My grandfather is the ocean. My mother is…My mother is … motherless. A lost girl. Or a found girl . . .My mother is . . .fierce. My mother was fierce.”

In “#Graced,” Almaguer gets a breakout role she has long deserved.  Sporting a plaid shirt and magenta-tinted hair, she radiates warmth, strength and compassion. Outspoken and opinionated, her Cat is in the metaphorical driver’s seat.  Sex and hygiene combine to spark a close-quarters alienation between Cat and Lewis, and Almaguer commits fully to Cat’s method of determining whether there’s any truth to the embarrassed Lewis’s jab at her.

Ferrer is a handsome, skilled actor and playwright who makes his Lewis a fine fit for Almaguer’s Cat.  His relatable Lewis is just nerdy and insecure enough that you believe he needs Almaguer’s Cat at least as much as she needs him.

Dalia Alemán tells Melissa Almaguer and Chris Anthony Ferrer why she parted ways with religious life in Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced.” (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

Diehl, who uses the pronouns he/him and they/them, is an absolute wonder as Blake, who still uses “she” but is clearly questioning her identity and sexual orientation.  Lonely Blake finds a temporary anchor in the compassionate Cat, who seems to know exactly what to say and how to handle Blake’s crush on her.

At one point, Diehl appears behind a sheer screen to deliver an urgent voicemail to Cat – first at normal speed, then at 1.5 times the regular speed, then at twice the usual speed.   It’s a small tour de force, and the crowd goes (deservedly) wild.

Alemán is lovely, convincingly naïve and then go-with-the-flow loose as Rosalie.  Bickic’s role as Gianni is relatively brief, but he becomes such a distinctive foe to Cat that you wish he were around more.  Lopez, in addition to playing Algorithmic Mayhem, cycles through a number of other characters, including Las Vegas-era Elvis, Lewis’s suave father and a cutesy young nun at the convent in the Dakotas,  a character that comes off as unnecessary comic relief in an emotionally fraught scene (Garcia’s choice, obviously).

Set designer B.J. Duncan, lighting designer Tony Galaska, costume designer Natasha Hernandez, sound designer Matt Corey, video director Delavega and  projection mapping designer Steven Covey have created an easily altered world for this theatrical road trip, one that blends multiple locations and the relentless intrusion of social media.

Sabrín Diehl, Lucy Lopez and Melissa Almaguer encounter algorithmic mayhem in the world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced” at Zoetic Stage. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon)

The two-section “RV” is moved around by the actors so that the audience gets different perspectives of the way Cat and Lewis are living, but the major set piece looks like what it is – a skeletal, pretend RV.

World premieres are seldom perfect in their first incarnation, and “#Graced” would benefit from attention to its ending – or an altogether different one.

However, the artistic journey Garcia has taken with this play is well worth joining. Crazy, contentious, inspiring America awaits.

WHAT: World premiere of “#Graced” by Vanessa Garcia

WHERE: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 7:30 p.m. May 10, no matinee May 13), through May 21

COST: $55-$60

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

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