Heidi Schreck’s new play Grand Concourse enjoyed its West Coast premiere at Artists Repertory Theatre last Saturday. The title refers to an area formerly known as Grand at Concourse in the Bronx. The play is set in a soup kitchen in what is now the poorest urban county (Bronx County) in the United States.
Shelley (Ayanna Berkshire) runs the down-at-the-heels soup kitchen. A nun who is questioning her faith, she prays at the microwave during quiet moments, but never for more than a minute at a time. Her job is a struggle, making her life a struggle, because, as she tells Emma (Jahnavi Alyssa), “desperation is contagious”. These are desperate times in the neighborhood, with more needy people showing up each day to get a meal. So when fresh-faced, enthusiastic Emma shows up offering to volunteer Shelley is glad to have her.
Emma arrives with baggage, and over time it creeps its way into the lives of the other characters–Shelley, handyman/security man Oscar (John San Nicolas), and homeless client and general pest Frog (Allen Nause).
There is humor aplenty in the play, and Frog provides most of it with his general demeanor, his ability to show up at exactly the wrong moment, and his pamphlet of execrable jokes. He’s a shape-shifter, sleeping in the rectory of the church whose basement the kitchen occupies, raiding the kitchen’s refrigerator, popping in and out with observations and jokes. In a lifetime of fine roles, Allen Nause as Frog is truly in one of his best–and he plays it to the hilt. He’s as deft and mercurial as Robin Williams. Roaming on and off the stage with an observation or bad punch-line, playing for laughs and the extra sandwich, he is the very face of homelessness–desperate, in denial, clawing for a foothold of dignity as well as daily survival. Frog’s desire to fit in, to matter as a human being, is palpable.
Laughs notwithstanding, relentless reality cuts in at every juncture. Questions of choices, motives, mental health, and how much we are expected to or are able to forgive provide a solid foundation for Grand Concourse.
The play is directed by JoAnn Johnson. It’s run has been extended by one week through June 5. On Tuesday, May 17, the performance will benefit Oregon Food Bank.
Award-winning playwright Heidi Schreck grew up in Wenatchee, Washington and attended University of Oregon as a theatre major. In addition to her writing, she has performed in many plays and television series. She lives in Brooklyn.