Of the many Big Issues running through Grand Concourse—faith, fidelity, homelessness, poverty, mental illness—the one playwright Heidi Schreck brings home is forgiveness. But to do so, she commits an unforgivable dramaturgical sin.
Schreck sets her 2014 play, given a cunningly designed, swiftly paced Steppenwolf premiere under Yasen Peyankov's characteristically thoughtful direction, in a soup kitchen in a Bronx Catholic church. It's run by the decidedly progressive nun Shelley (she sports street clothes and issues the occasional "motherfucker"), whose upbringing under a feminist academic mother and "jerk lawyer" father gave her a ferocious social conscience and abrasive moxie. Her maintenance man and security worker, Oscar, a young, mouthy Dominican struggling to put himself through community college, hopes someday to earn enough to marry his sweetheart, Rosa.
The soup kitchen is scraping to get by. Shelley's meager budget no longer allows for meat in the enormous stew pots prepared each day for the swarms of homeless people waiting to be fed somewhere offstage—swarms that are steadily growing larger. Making matters worse, Shelley finds it increasingly difficult to pray (she must force herself, starting with one minute per day, using the microwave's timer to keep her on track) or to believe that prayer even matters any more. Schreck lets us meet only one of the soup kitchen's clients: Frog, a lovable nut job with a short-circuited brain, an insidious strain of paranoia, and an unfortunate likeness to a stereotypical sitcom wacky neighbor.
Into this stagnant mix wanders Emma, a 19-year-old college dropout with hair streaked turquoise, an inscrutable aspect, and an inchoate desire to "help people who need help." Offering to volunteer, she's a deer in the headlights with a relatively privileged background (after her first day, she professes a need for a shower and a trip to Sephora) and an unsettled mental state. When Oscar asks about her multicolored hair, she explains it reflects her self-hatred. "If I changed my hair," she says, "I wouldn't know it was me." Schreck's main concern for an hour and 45 minutes is whether Shelley and Emma, two calculatedly wounded souls, can find healing in each other.
Schreck's setup is overly tidy (Shelley is all hardened cynicism, Emma all naive restlessness), and like so many contemporary playwrights she squanders a lot of stage time letting her characters talk about their backgrounds, worries, and predilections rather than moving the action forward. At best, it results in some interesting conversations while people stand around chopping vegetables. At worst, it turns things amateurish: the only way Schreck manages to let us know Shelley's ambivalent feelings toward her dying father is to have her deliver an instructive monologue disguised as a confession to God. And no matter how movingly Schreck's characters speak (Shelley's description of the dream that let her accept the holiness of her own body is exquisite), it never feels like much is at stake, except whether Emma's enthusiasm will reinvigorate the soup kitchen.
It's only at roughly the one-hour mark, when Shelley discovers Emma may not be who she claims, that the characters begin to face meaningful consequences for their actions. And suddenly Schreck is off to the races, creating taut, emotionally complex scenes with stakes that genuinely matter. Both Shelley and Emma reach their breaking points. Oscar retreats into imagined domestic safety. And poor Frog becomes so stressed that he has a full-on psychotic break.
It's engrossing stuff, especially in the hands of Peyankov's superlative cast. Victor Almanzar and Tim Hopper, as Oscar and Frog respectively, find impressive depths in their one-dimensional characters. As Emma, Brittany Uomoleale makes her character's largely inexplicable actions (for starters, she constructs a horrific lie to gain her coworkers' sympathy) feel urgent and credible. If she can't make complete sense of the character it's because Schreck has given Emma more contradictory impulses than psychological cohesion. But as Shelley, Mariann Mayberry shows yet again the depths of her emotional reserves and the precision of her theatrical craft. Her ultimate struggle to muster forgiveness—for Emma, for herself, for the world—is harrowing.
But no matter how compellingly Schreck writes, she unwisely lets everything hinge on the actions (and inactions) of Emma, a self-absorbed, manipulative teenager who for no clear reason has shunned her middle-class family and now demands help. Schreck wants her audience to invest deeply in Emma, but provides only the sketchiest references to the scores of desperate homeless people forever offstage and facing problems which reduce Emma's to petty annoyances. It's an oversight that's not only unforgivable; it's unconscionable. v