West Coast Debut of the “Grand Concourse” brings Northwesterner Heidi Schrek’s Story of Identity Crisis Home.
A nun in a Bronx soup kitchen struggles with her faith, as a spunky teenager turns the operation upside down. Don’t be fooled. It might sound cute, even quaint or tired, but those expecting a feel-good piece involving restored faith, moral redemption, and renewed compassion for humanity have forgotten their time and place.
Artists Rep highlights challenging work. During “Grand Concourse,” written by Heidi Schreck and directed by JoAnn Johnson, I found myself scowling and shifting in my seat far more than I had anticipated and, after I realized I wasn’t just going to be spoon fed hokey cliches, I love-hated every moment of it.
The cast and set are small, but seamlessly fit into a larger sense of place. This detailed kitchen, with its working sink and refrigerator and shelves of cheap canned tomato sauces, is the heart of a living and breathing neighborhood. Punk kids throw rocks at the kitchen window. There are lines of hungry people to feed down the hall. The transitioning soundtrack captures the busy street sounds of the Grand Concourse with shuffling feet and blaring car horns. This is not a mere set — it is an island in a vast pool of life.
And on this island is the long-enduring Shelley in a solid performance by Ayanna Berkshire. Daughter of a severe atheist, feminist academic, Shelley rebelled against her mother and pursued a path of faith and servitude. But after devoting years of her life helping neighborhood homeless people get through the day, she finds herself day after day standing before a microwave, setting its timer to one minute. Her face contorts as she looks upward, hands clasped, mouth struggling to produce enough sound to fill that endless single minute with meaningful prayer.
“I’m stuck,” is all she can say at first. And the theme of struggling with identity is set in motion. For a protagonist, Shelley and her development are often upstaged by the booming vivacity of her peers. Her co-worker Oscar (John San Nicolas) is gregariously loud and a flirtatious tease. The homeless regular Frog (Allen Nause) is a colorful, endearing riot. And of course, there’s Emma (Jahnavi Alyssa), the young newcomer to the soup kitchen.
Looking to volunteer out of her element, Emma is naive and afraid of disapproval, but that does not stop her from playing precocious and dangerously coquettish. Shelley is not impressed by her greenness, but is abruptly softened, as we all are, when we learn more about Emma.
But O almighty Lord, does this play violate these expectations — and it does so again and again. Without warning, we are given access we didn’t ask for into furtive infidelities and I’m not only referring to the sexual kind. Throughout “Grand Concourse,” we are shown four people who couldn’t be more different, but they all suffer from the same affliction: a crisis in identity.
Shelley is an independent force to be reckoned with, but struggles with reconciling her sense of duty with her ever-increasing lack of faith. Oscar is in love with his girlfriend, but can’t ignore his feelings toward Emma. Frog is a jovial joke maker and longtime rebel against “the system,” who experiences both joy and severe impostor syndrome when presented with a legitimate job. And Emma is divided between lofty, carefree highs and inconsolable lows. Is she truly the unstoppable force of enthusiasm or the girl who just can’t seem to get out of bed for days?
Schreck has created a story with an air of humor and levity, anchored by powerful moments of humanity we don’t often volunteer to scrutinize.
To once again echo the play’s first line: “I’m stuck.” We often feel stuck in between modes, feeling under threat of being drawn and quartered to oblivion. Keep your eye on Shelley, for although she is herself confused and lost, she is the rock of this frustrating delight of a play, made more so by Berkshire’s ability to infuse exhaustion and jadedness with a generous dose of sass and heart. Schreck has created a story with an air of humor and levity, anchored by powerful moments of humanity we don’t often volunteer to scrutinize. When I exited the theater, I felt both frustrated and pleased, disturbed and empowered. I am stuck. That says it all.
“Grand Concourse” is written by Heidi Schreck and directed by JoAnn Johnson. It will be playing at the Artists Repertory Theatre through June 5.