Lost soul rises to a challenge in ‘Grace, or the Art of Climbing’

Grace or the art of climbing

Emily Kitchens stars in “Grace, or the Art of Climbing,” which is being presented by Art House Productions in Jersey City through April 1.

It’s not every play that lists a “rigging consultant” in its credits, and offers special thanks to a local indoor rock climbing gym. But the creative team behind “Grace, or the Art of Climbing,” which is currently being presented at Art House Productions in Jersey City, had to do things a little differently from the norm.

It’s a play about a young woman, Emm (played by Emily Kitchens), who pulls herself out of despair by throwing herself into the sport of rock climbing. And in much of the play, we see her training — struggling with her demons as she strives to scale heights.

She can’t just talk about it. She has to do it, and we have to see her doing it.

She does most of her climbing on the wall of rope pictured above, though director Adin Walker and scenic designer Claire DeLiso also make use of dangling ropes, a ladder, and even bumps on the floor meant to represent the holdholds used on climbing walls at indoor gyms. Obsessed with the sport, Emm climbs and climbs and climbs; Kitchens, appropriately, shows signs of awkwardness early on but grows more graceful on the ropes as the play goes on. She also does a good job at showing the extreme effort necessary to become a master climber (or, really, to succeed at any sport).

Playwright L.M. Feldman’s central metaphor is an obvious one, already explored in songs ranging from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.” But it’s powerful, anyway.

In other words, this is no “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” where one picks up the book and wonders, “How is the author going to pull this off?” It’s no big stretch to see Emm’s efforts to become adept at climbing walls as a reflection of her struggle to climb out of the rut that her life has become. But there’s still enough depth to Feldman’s writing to make it work.

When we first meet Emm, she’s a mystery: A young Boston resident who has moved back to her family’s Miami home and is having trouble getting out of bed or, really, doing much of anything.

“I think I need to climb,” she announces, but she’s too daunted at first to do anything at the gym, or cut more than an hour off her 3 p.m. wake-up time. “Well, it’s a start,” her stoic, stalwart father (Lawrence Street) says with a shrug.

With the help of her father, and a no-nonsense coach, Sims (Paulo Quiros), she begins to make progress, and learn life lessons in the gym. She needs to accept, for instance, that sometimes, when she climbs, she’s going to fall. It doesn’t mean she is a failure; that’s just part of the process. (Of course, she won’t sustain serious injury, because of the safety harness she wears.) If she’s not falling, she’s told, that just means she’s not climbing hard enough.

Four other actors (Javan Nelson, Tiffany Iris, Thomas Muccioli and Hank Morris) play kids at the gym, as well as other people in Emm’s life.As Emm makes progress, we learn more about what drove her into depression — relationship troubles with her boyfriend back in Boston, and a tragedy in her family— and she eventually emerges as a complex, three-dimensional character, not the caricature of the floundering 20-something we saw initially.

Feldman’s approach is not tremendously realistic. Emm never wonders about the wisdom of devoting herself to climbing — against the benefits of something like, say, getting a job — or worries about how she’s going to pay her bills, let alone her personal coach. She’s on a quasi-spiritual quest, and that’s what Feldman is writing about, and that’s fine.

Still, it comes as a nice bit of down-to-earth humor when Sims tells her, “This is climbing, not philosophy. You don’t have to turn everything into a philosophy for something else.”

“Grace, or the Art of Climbing” will be presented by Art House Productions in Jersey City through April 1. Visitarthouseproductions.org.

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