Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck; Beth Lopes directed at Theatre Horizon, Norristown PA, February 2017.
Combining its selection of play with a mission to help hungry and homeless people, Norristown’s Theatre Horizon has mounted Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse. This one-act drama has previously run in New York and Chicago.
It is set in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx, on the once-plush avenue called Grand Concourse. The play creates empathy for the hungry, and for folks who devote themselves to helping them.
Grand Concourse received wildly varying notices from earlier critics. Some thought it was “profoundly moving,” others called it badly flawed with one central player who is a “supremely loathsome” young woman. I found it to be an intriguing set of character studies. One of the four protagonists is quite appealing, and was exceptionally well-acted: Samantha Rosentrater as Shelley, a modern nun who questions her ability to serve God and the homeless. Another player is an off-beat man who makes an interesting journey: David Bardeen as an older gent who is brain-damaged from drug use. The other two characters leave something to be desired.
The soup kitchen’s paid staffer, Oscar (Randy Nuñez), is likable but doesn’t evolve as a person, nor have much depth. The fourth cast member is Emma (Ariella Serur), a 19-year-old college dropout who volunteers to help in the kitchen. She wants a sense of purpose and she is eager, but we gradually detect signs of instability.
Emma lies that she has cancer; she lies about her parents, and when the falsehoods are discovered the play seems to have reached its denouement. But, as the story continues, worse is to come. The seemingly-repentant Emma breaks a promise to care for Shelley’s cat while the nun goes to care for her dying mother in another city, and the cat dies. The nun decides that she cannot forgive Emma and, feeling a failure, she leaves her profession.
Emma fooled her co-workers once; shame on her. Then she fooled them twice; shame on them for allowing her. Serur is so charismatic a performer that we understand the gullibility of the people with whom she came in contact. She did an exemplary acting job with a very difficult part.
A positive way to assess the play is to see it as a battle between a deceitful young woman and another woman who is seeking trust. This clash provides effective drama. The play is frustrating. Its heart is in the right place, but its balance is shaky and the main plot twist is off-putting.
Still, we were gripped by the effort of a nun to persevere when her faith is tested. Shelley is a relatable character, beautifully delineated in the script and in Rosentrater‘s performance. The direction by Beth Lopes flowed nicely, with fluid movements by cast members that almost seemed to be a form of dance. The lighting by Mike Inwood cleverly marked the changes of scenes. All the action took place in the one set, nicely detailed by Sheryl Liu.
Theatre Horizon has used the production to call attention to the fact that there are 88,000 people struggling with hunger in the second wealthiest county in Pennsylvania, Montgomery County. Staff urged all audience members to take action to alleviate the problem.