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BWW Review: GRAND CONCOURSE Divines The Limits of Giving and Forgiving ~ Theatre Artists Studio Has A Palpable and Inspired Hit

GRAND CONCOURSE is a seminal work in Heidi Schreck's portfolio of plays. In a recent interview with the playwright and two-time Obie Award-winning actress, I opined that the human struggle to ascend and to find the saint in ourselves is a thread that weaves through her writings; that religion and religious figures are her metaphor. She concurred, tracing her artistic vision back to her childhood when religion was a hot roundtable topic in her home (her father's dissertation was on Kierkegaard) and understanding God was paramount. Her evolution as an artist and her imagination were influenced as well by the great Russian writers (in her early career, she worked in Siberia and St. Petersburg as a journalist), most notably Dostoevsky and his inquiry into the nature of good and evil.

In GRAND CONCOURSE, now on stage at Theatre Artists Studio, these themes converge in a soup kitchen in the Bronx where questions about the value and cost of service to others boil and bubble.

Debra Rich is superb and engrossing as Shelley the nun, who, at forty-something and having devoted her life to the poor, stirs the pot with wonderment as to whether anything she's done has made a difference. Her countenance reveals the burnout of a life in service to others. Her conversations with the deity are halting, measured and timed out by the microwave clock. Her last hope for reclamation may be Emma, the distressed 19-year old who volunteers to work in the kitchen and claims to have cancer.

Shelby Daeffler delivers a bravura performance as Emma. This young actress, a 2015 MCCD Artist of Promise, walks the stage with a maturity and talent for nuance that rivals veteran actresses. As the contradictions of her character unfold, Daeffler reveals marvelous versatility in capturing emotions ranging from innocence to deceit, from flirtation to rejection, from sin to atonement.

Daeffler and Rich are opposite ends of a magnet that pushes and pulls their encounter to the limits of giving, forgiveness, and self-discovery.

Tom Noga and Luke Gomez add spice to the brewing stew with well-defined performances as soup kitchen denizens, both of whom benefit in different ways from Emma's apparent beneficence.

Noga is terrific and endearing as Frog ~ once a global adventurer who can say epilepsy in five different languages and whose mind now is, as he puts it, a "radiated field." Emma's assistance in finding him a job as a receptionist propels him to question Shelley's failure to ever help him in such a way. Shelley is stunned by this challenge, and her self-doubt is further stirred.

Gomez is the good looking and affable janitor who serves as well as Shelley's jack of all trades and protector from the sticks and stones of the outside world. When Emma hits on him, he unravels and puts his romance with his girlfriend at risk. Shelley in short order is acutely aware of the breach of propriety in her domain but chooses to overlook it.

Schreck acknowledges that some people have questioned Shelley's decision to disregard Emma's behavior. The answer is that it is not uncommon for the helpers and caregivers of the world to be in denial of the reality that stares at them. It is inherent in the dynamic of co-dependence. In this instance, it is part of Shelley's journey to come to terms with reality ~ the true reasons for the choices she has made, the level and value of her commitment to others, the ultimate costs of caring.

Schreck's brilliance is in placing these four characters together in the cauldron of the kitchen to examine a host of questions that apply not only to the nun but to all of us. Kitchens are indeed the iconic venues for life's great conversations, and, it is here in Shelley's domain, by the Bronx's once grand avenue, that, these questions drive another restoration project ~ Shelley's restoration. Shelley's struggle is with the saint in herself. She manifests the commitment to do good and the exhaustion that happens, as Schreck observes, "when you devote your life to service and realize how hopeless it can all feel." Just as her role model, Dorothy Day, questioned her motivation for doing good (in The Long Loneliness), Shelley is compelled to ask if her service was divinely inspired or a way to avoid and distance herself from the unpleasant things of her family life. Finally, Shelley must differentiate between automatic or obligatory and genuine forgiveness.

As the play ends, there is an apparent illumination. Salvation may be around the corner. The weight of caring may be lifted. And, in Debra Rich's final Mona Lisa-like smile, we may wonder what comes next in Shelley's journey.

Director Richard Powers-Hardt and his solid cast deliver a perfectly balanced production of Schreck's provocative and immensely relevant masterwork.

GRAND CONCOURSE will stand as one of Theatre Artists Studio's most powerful and memorable productions. The show runs through January 31st.

Photo credit to Mark Gluckman

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From This Author Herbert Paine