Hilarious and thought-provoking
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Many plays have explored the complications of faith, even among the supposedly devoted and perfect. What sets Grand Concourse apart is an additional exploration: the complexities of doing good. As both a born, raised and eventually lapsed Catholic, and someone who’s spent many years working for nonprofit organizations, I was intrigued by Steppenwolf’s season closer. Grand Concourse fits perfectly into the company’s 2014-15 theme – “how did I get here?” – and thanks to a humorously tragic script, thoughtful direction and a terrific cast, is tied with 1997’s A Streetcar Named Desire, 2012’s Good People, and this year’s Marie Antoinette as Steppenwolf’s most unforgettable.
Shelley (Mariann Mayberry) is a nun who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx’s busiest and poorest neighborhood. But lately this woman of God and professional do-gooder is struggling: with her faith (she sets a microwave timer to pray), the impending death of her estranged father, and the lingering question of whether she’s actually helping the homeless individuals she feeds every day on a forever-limited budget. She’s not exactly jaded – yet – but she’s definitely, infinitely tired. Enter Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a 19-year-old college dropout with blue hair, a terminal illness and a desire to feed the hungry. As Shelley tentatively builds trust and friendship with the enigmatic young woman, more questions arise: is Emma who she says she is? What exactly keeps her in a soup kitchen that often sends well-meaning volunteers running after day one? And why, exactly, is she here?
Heidi Schreck’s one-act script begins as a seemingly unrelated series of vignettes: Emma comes onto the scene, Shelley discusses the motivations and vision that led to her taking the vows, maintenance man Oscar (Victor Almanzar) struggles with his demanding girlfriend and frequent patron Frog (Tim Hopper) rants and raves about everything from his former vegetarianism to his own good looks. Slowly but surely, however, the threads are woven into a tapestry, colorful and equal parts light and weighty. Shelley is a likable, compelling protagonist even at her most self-loathing, and watching her journey – one step forward, two steps back – is the ultimate dramatic reward. Director and Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov keeps the action moving, quick and thorough as a musical choreographer or short-story writer. Peyankov’s direction neither dwells nor rushes; rather, he hits that sweet spot of fast-paced and sustained, haunting moments that stayed with me long after blackout.
Along with its strong script and direction, this Grand Concourse is made memorable by its stellar actors. Hopper gives Frog a heart-wrenching veracity, and Almanzar’s wisecracking and morally ambiguous Oscar feels equally real. Uomoleale makes a stunning Steppenwolf debut as unpredictable Emma, so openhearted, self-absorbed and utterly 19 years old that I had flashbacks to that exhilarating yet terrifying time in my life. Everything Mayberry touches turns to gold, and the character of Shelley is no exception. Her bravura performance as a woman in the deepest of emotional crises under a no-nonsense exterior is simply exquisite.
Grand Concourse is a slow, auspicious burn that lures the audience with lighthearted banter and builds to a potent climax. Ninety-nine percent of the action takes place in the “kitchen” part of the soup kitchen, with only four visible characters, but there’s an entire world in the belly of the beast. Thanks to the holy trinity of script, director and cast, Grand Concourse ends one of Steppenwolf’s strongest seasons with a bang, a whimper, and a question: what does it mean to do good?
Grand Concourse continues through August 30th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $20-$89, and are available by phone (773-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Mariann Mayberry (Shelley), Tim Hopper (Frog – thru 8/9), Francis Guinan (Frog – 8/11-8/30), Brittany Uomoleale (Emma), Victor Almanzar (Oscar), Carly Carano (understudy for Emma), Shawna Franks (u/s for Shelley), Matt Rockwood (u/s for Frog), Dominique Worsley (u/s for Oscar)
behind the scenes
Yasen Peyankov (director), Joey Wade (scenic design), Natasha Dukich (costume design), Scott Zielinski (lighting design), Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen (sound design, original music), Dassia N. Posner (dramaturg), Erica Daniels (casting director), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager), Cassie Calderone (assistant stage manager – 5/26-7/19 and 8/18-8/30), Jonathan Nook (assistant stage manager – 7/21-8/16), Michael Brosilow (photos)