Playhouse in the Park's 'Alias Grace' Delves Into the Mind of a Murderer – With No Easy Answers

An adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, "Alias Grace" is compelling, if not entirely satisfying, theater.

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click to enlarge "Alias Grace" at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park - Mikki Schaffner
Mikki Schaffner
"Alias Grace" at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

To kick off the 2019/2020 season on the Cincinnati Playhouse’s rebooted smaller stage, the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre — refurbished with new, more accommodating seats (capacity reduced from 225 to 172), better sightlines and a new name — Artistic Director Blake Robison has staged Jennifer Blackmer’s provocative Alias Grace, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel. It’s compelling, if not entirely satisfying, theater. 

Atwood — whose Handmaid’s Tale has become a contemporary bellwether of feminist resistance to male dominance — reframed the true story of Grace Marks, a 16-year-old servant in Ontario, Canada, who was convicted in 1843 of murdering her employer and his housekeeper. Atwood translated the sensational tale into a complex narrative exploring motives, fantasies and tragic outcomes. Playwright Blackmer has given Atwood’s story a surreal, psychological telling that presents multiple answers to complex questions and leaves many mysteries for the audience to wrestle with.

The play is set in 1859. Dr. Simon Jordan (Grant Goodman) is a serious-minded physician who today we’d call a psychiatrist. Fascinated with unbalanced minds and eager to establish his reputation, he has come to a prison to unravel the motives and actions of Grace (Caroline Hewitt) with talking therapy, a notion received at first skeptically by Mrs. Rachel Lavell (Annie Fitzpatrick), the meddlesome wife of the prison director who has her own selfish interests in delving into Grace’s case. 

The story unfolds as Jordan interviews Grace, an Irish immigrant now over 30 years old, in sessions which become enacted episodes that feature characters from her past. She is hired by Nancy Montgomery (Tess Talbot), a controlling housekeeper, as a housemaid for Thomas Kinnear (Nick Rose), an unmarried rogue of a man with a reputation for taking advantage of female employees. James McDermott (Damien Boykin) is a cocky stable hand and likely accomplice in the murders (the real McDermott was executed for his involvement). We also meet Jeremiah (R. Ward Duffy), a charming itinerant peddler; Duffy also plays Dr. Jerome Dupont, a smarmy “neuro-hypnotist” who competes with Dr. Jordan to unlock Grace’s dark secrets.

A deeper memory involves Mary Whitney (Andrea San Miguel), another servant in a household where Grace is employed before the Kinnear farm. A sparky young woman affectingly played by San Miguel, Mary is more worldly than Grace. They become friends, but Mary’s untimely demise following a botched abortion is offered as a possible factor in Grace’s eventual behavior.

The tale’s title hints at inscrutable mystery: Grace claims not to remember the heinous murders. Does “alias” imply some actual erasure of recollection, a takeover by an alternate personality, or simply a device to hide behind? All these possibilities are offered, and Hewitt’s wonderfully complex performance affords numerous options for consideration: sometimes Grace is blank and forthcoming; sometimes hysterical, and perhaps even manipulative. She remains inscrutable.

Further complicating matters is the behavior of Dr. Jordan. He has his own past of questionable behavior with young women, and his obsession with Grace evolves into something beyond scientific. He hopes to establish an asylum for further study, and his relationship with Mrs. Lavell promises to open doors to private funding. But she manipulates him in several ways and his professionalism becomes seriously erratic. His use of laudanum to “calm his nerves” evokes disturbing dream sequences that add texture as well as obfuscation to Grace’s treatment.

Atwood’s currency with stories of women abused by dominant males pervades Alias Grace. The story concludes mysteriously with a sense of female victory: Grace is ultimately exonerated and released from prison (as she was in real life, with no explanation). Blackmer’s script and Robison’s direction lean hard on metaphor with evocative red flowers and petals as recurrent images, reflecting both passion and violence.

Alias Grace is staged simply on a wooden-floored set with Victorian detailing, etched-glass, gas lighting fixtures and furniture that slides in and out silently. Designer Jo Winiarski’s setting enhances an air of doomed mystery, further amplified by Matthew M. Nielson’s subtle sound design and Jaymi Lee Smith’s moody lighting. Alias Grace evokes many issues, leaving many open-ended. It’s the kind of show that makes you think, without offering a firm resolution. 

Alias Grace, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through Oct. 27 on the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre Stage. More info/tickets:

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