It’s a story we have heard before, possibly even lived. A sinister trap, harmless but only at first. A relationship going well enough until it isn’t, and you realize that maybe it never really was. Graceland, written by critic-turned-playwright Ava Wong Davies, follows a romance from its genesis to its inevitable dissolution. Graceland is a 75-minute monologue; it illustrates what is perhaps a letter to or even a eulogy for an unnamed lover. However, despite an apparent effort by directors Anna Himali Howard and Izzy Rabey and Sabrina Wu’s emphatic performance, Davies’ lyrical script benefitted little from a stage adaptation, feeling more like an audiobook meant to stay on the page and off the stage.
Nina (Wu) meets Gabriel at a barbecue, and they instantly hit it off. She works at her parents’ Chinese restaurant and later as a receptionist, with little ambition to become something more. He’s a poet, presumably with a bucketload of wealth to support him from his (white) family. Their backgrounds make them, to a degree, a sort of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers from different sides of the tracks. Nina narrates their intimate beginnings from her bedroom — in the center of a platform with a muddy perimeter, right next to a striped, single bed — an indication enough that her love, as swoon-worthy as it seems, is doomed.
At the start, Gabriel isn’t waving any bright red flags, at least none that Nina can see. However, as the story progresses, the audience watches as she bubbles with confusion and an unidentified internal rage that builds up to several mini-climaxes. His casual cruelty, inconsistent financial generosity, and passive-aggressive commentary increase in both frequency and hostility.
Wu delivers a structured performance throughout, with tonal shifts (assisted by lighting and music changes) that give every character other than her own a voice. She is the perfect narrator. And yet, she seems a little too hyper-aware of her audience, many times bursting her own bubble. Despite the atmospheric efforts from set designer Mydd Pharo as she muddies herself and washes off her clothes right in front of our eyes, there are some moments that are just too metaphoric to land.
The show’s undisputed climax occurs when Nina frantically recounts the moment his abrasiveness pushes her over the edge. Its eventual finale, though subdued, is filled to the brim with tragedy. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth — the exact consequence of relationships such as these. The premise of unpacking toxic masculinity sounds simple, though Davies packs ample social commentary about class, privilege, and race throughout the play. Unfortunately, a stage adaptation does not do her writing justice, and several moments, including the climax, can go straight over the audience’s heads.
“People are hard to love. That’s what makes it worth doing,” Nina’s father tells her in a touching conversation between the two as she attempts to unveil her parents’ complicated past. However, Nina’s journey demonstrates the opposite. Love shouldn’t be a battleground. You shouldn’t soldier on for eternity to make it work. It isn’t an easy lesson to digest, but it’s real. Graceland may not be as attention-gripping as it could have been. “It all goes on,” trails Nina into oblivion. Does it? She can’t tell you, one way or another.