Heidi Schreck’s fascinating play Grand Concourse is set in a church soup kitchen, among people who need a hand and those who help them. The play deals with poverty, but its biggest concern is the people who work in this field, devoting their lives to helping others and giving of themselves. What happens to the givers, Schreck’s play asks, when they’ve got nothing left to give?
The soup kitchen in Grand Concourse is in the Bronx, on that titular boulevard, serving the homeless and needy. Shelley is the kitchen’s hard-nosed but kind-at-heart supervisor. We soon learn that despite her casual work clothes, Shelley is actually a nun.
To the world at large, Shelley is a pillar of strength. But deep down, she’s plagued with doubt. Not about God – her faith is absolute – but about whether she’s serving God in the right way. Her prayers, delivered early each morning when she enters the kitchen, recount her struggle: “I think I have skills that might be more useful… my mind is atrophying here.” In a few moments, though, she’s blaming herself: “Forgive me… I’m just grumpy.”
The soup kitchen doesn’t have a big budget – they have to cut corners constantly – but Shelley makes the most of her limited resources. “She never stops working,” the good-natured security guard Oscar says of her. And, when it comes to dealing with homeless denizens who are out to scam her, “She forgives everybody.” It’s not long, though, before Shelley is put to the test, making her wonder if she truly can forgive everybody.
The person who tests Shelley is Emma, a new 19-year-old volunteer. Cagey at first, she hints that she’s going through upheaval in her life; then, in an unguarded moment, she says that she has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. She’s come to the soup kitchen to give her life some meaning and assist the indigent. Before long, she’s helping Frog, a homeless man with a disheveled appearance and a disheveled life, to get his life under control. But Emma gradually reveals that she has some control issues of her own.
Grand Concourse is a thoughtful, perceptive play that asks big questions: What are the limits of what we can do for others? What are the limits of what we can do for ourselves? And what are the limits of forgiveness and compassion?
It’s also a work that takes religious faith seriously, though considering some of the choices its characters make, it’s far from a pious play.
Schreck constructs scenes with textured dialogue that reveals insights into the characters. There’s also a strong narrative drive, even though some of the play’s construction is creaky. (After the plot’s first crisis was resolved, I figured out quickly when the second one would start.) And the motivations of a central character are never fully explained – but given what happens, perhaps they never can be fully explained.
Director Beth Lopes gets richly layered performances from her cast. Samantha Rosentrater plays Shelley with an affecting blend of toughness and vulnerability. When she gets hurt, the audience feels that hurt acutely. She earns the audience’s sympathy without ever once asking for it. David Bardeen is poignant as the damaged but diligent Frog. With his scratchy voice and off-kilter stare, Bardeen elevates Frog from a typical wild-eyed drug casualty into a touchingly quirky oddball.
Oscar the security guard doesn’t have as much depth as the other characters, but Randy Nuñez gives him an earnestness and joviality that make him fun to watch. And Ariella Serur, as the endlessly complicated Emma, makes her character both likable and disturbing without resorting to clichés.
Sheryl Liu’s set design creates a realistic-looking industrial kitchen, with fluorescent tubes overhead supplying much of the illumination (Mike Inwood did the lighting).
Caitlin Cisek’s costumes reveal a lot about the characters, especially an army jacket that looks like Frog has been wearing it for decades.
One scene in Lopes’ production stands out, because it’s so different from all the others. It’s a scene where, after a lot of tension (and dialogue) between the crew members, they suddenly begin working silently and in lockstep. The food and its handlers move through the kitchen with smooth, precise choreography as a delicate, classical-style keyboard soundtrack plays. (Toby Pettit is credited as sound designer.) For one lovely moment, the demands of feeding a hungry and growing populace, and trying to solve difficult problems, fade away. For a moment, all is right with the world.
But in the next moment, the music is over. This is a busy soup kitchen. There are more mouths to feed. And life goes on.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.