BWW Review: N.E. Premiere GRAND CONCOURSE at SpeakEasy Stage Company
Written by Heidi Schreck, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Lee Schuna; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Manager, Daryl A. Laurenza
Performances through April 1 by SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com
SpeakEasy Stage Company began 2017 with the irreverent puppet show Hand to God, but treads a decidedly more respectful path with the New England premiere of playwright Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse. The questions she raises about faith and forgiveness may be as thorny as the issues considered in H to G, but there's very little sex, no violence, and none of the dysfunctional characters requires an exorcism. Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary makes her SpeakEasy Stage debut with this production, leading an accomplished cast of actors who unaffectedly inhabit their roles. Although both have been on this stage before, Melissa Lopez and Thomas Derrah appear together for the first time. They are joined by another SpeakEasy veteran, Alejandro Simoes, while Ally Dawson is making her debut with the company.
Grand Concourse takes its title from the name of the largest thoroughfare in the Bronx where the play is set. However, the playwright explains that a secondary definition of "concourse" is a coming together of people, and she employs that aspect of the word by putting her characters in a soup kitchen (realistically rendered by scenic designer Jenna McFarland Lord) where they work to help the needy and create community. Shelley (Lopez), a Catholic nun, is the manager of the soup kitchen, who is aided by maintenance worker cum security guard Oscar (Simoes), a Dominican immigrant. The only regular we meet is Frog (Derrah), a far from run-of-the-mill homeless guy who writes bad jokes and proffers nuggets of wisdom, even as he fends off the demons of his paranoia. He forges a bond with the newest volunteer, Emma (Dawson), a 19-year old college dropout looking for a purpose. She dives into her position and creates opportunities for work and services for Frog, but her behavior and deception lead to a litany of problems that encroach upon all of her relationships.
Even before Emma enters the picture, Shelley is walking a personal tightrope between her commitment to the service of others and struggling with the daily practice of prayer, a linchpin of her faith. Lopez superbly shows the duality of her character, applying her skills of patience and caring in her dealings with her charges, while also letting us see her weariness and ambivalence. She and Dawson share a believable chemistry as the older woman serving as a role model and taking the younger woman under her wing. Dawson's performance is powerful in a challenging role. She conveys the mixed-up adolescent persona, wanting to please and wanting to be independent, and brazenly crosses over personal boundaries repeatedly, especially with Oscar.
Oscar is a good guy who works hard to improve his situation and make enough money to marry his girlfriend. However, he gets in over his head with Emma and it is fun to watch Simoes navigate the rough ride she takes him on. When he offers to share a clementine with her, Dawson squeezes the juice out of him, so to speak. In contrast with her pursuit of her selfish desires with Oscar, Emma seems to genuinely care about helping Frog and he thrives on her attention. Derrah plays him as a real character, the kind of person you might see walking around your small town talking to himself. However, behind the facade, Frog is very smart, but also paranoid if he doesn't take his medication. He sees something worthwhile in Emma and becomes her advocate.
There is a good amount of light humor in Grand Concourse, but the dramatic content rises when each of the characters faces a test. The playwright gives the meatiest personal conflicts to Shelley and Emma, having them act as her surrogates to explore how far faith can take you, and what it requires to truly forgive someone (or yourself). With the assistance of Karen Perlow's lighting and Lee Schuna's sound design, O'Leary builds the tension until the final scene when things may or may not be resolved. All I'll say about that is that it is an incredible moment for Lopez and a fitting conclusion for a play in which more happens internally than externally. Food for thought for the drive home.