By Michele Markarian
‘Grand Concourse’ – Written by Heidi Schrek. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Presented by Speakeasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, through April 1.
For starters, I haven’t been this engaged with a play since seeing a production of Annie Baker’s “The Flick” at Playwrights Horizons in 2013. Speakeasy hits all the right notes with “Grand Concourse”, from Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s flawless direction to Jenna McFarland’s Lord’s super realistic set to the excellent cast of four. Judging from the audience, who never once displayed any signs of restlessness, we were all engrossed in the small drama that was unfolding.
Shelley (Melinda Lopez) is an uninspired nun who runs a soup kitchen in a Bronx church with little in the way of paid assistance, except for security guard Oscar (Alejandro Simoes). Setting the time on a microwave, Shelley forces herself to try and pray each morning, even though she believes her prayers to be futile. When a nineteen year old college dropout named Emma (Ally Dawson) shows up to volunteer, she’s immediately put to work. Shelley, Oscar, and especially Frog (Thomas Derrah), the homeless intellectual schizophrenic who’s a denizen of the shelter, all take a liking to the young woman, even after she reveals her unreliability. Emma’s final betrayal is the cam that Shelley, and to some extent Oscar, need to get their lives unstuck and on track.
Melinda Lopez’s reluctant nun Shelley has a sympathetic, restrained quality. We feel her desire to embrace her vocation even as she struggles with it. Her trust in Emma, despite Emma’s lying, is horrifyingly misguided; you get the sense that through Emma’s rehabilitation that Shelley has hope for her own. Shelley’s revelation – that she doesn’t have to forgive – throws the overbearing mantle of the veil off forever, and left this audience member feeling curiously joyful with her. Such is Lopez’s tremendous gift to create empathy for her character. Alejandro Simoes’s Oscar has energy and passion. Although he wants to marry his girlfriend, Rosa, he doesn’t feel financially ready. Thomas Derrah’s Frog is vulnerable and brash; Derrah manages to skillfully navigate the fulcrum between sane and paranoid. Ally Dawson, as Emma, brings a self-conscious humanity to the character’s instability. Emma, unlike the others, has no real stake in what’s around her – she’s just passing through. Dawson manages to play her with heart and a little bit of sorrow for what she knows she’s doing.
Bridget Kathleen O’Leary grounds the cast in real tasks, making the reality for the audience that much more vivid. They chop vegetables – Lopez is a pro – fill pans with real running water, eat sandwiches, fry eggs. Jenna McFarland Lord has created a set that could be an actual church basement soup kitchen, right down to the boxes of potatoes peeking out from the wall behind the sink. When Lopez yells to the kids who are throwing stones at the kitchen “Jesus loves you – but you’re making it hard for him” it is from an outdoor space created just outside of the basement.
Heidi Schreck has written a play that is inhabited by credible characters. Nothing extraordinary happens, but what does is enough to scatter a once closely knit group of people into new territories they’re meant to grow into. It’s a hopeful, revelatory piece that I think you’ll like. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/