Norristown's Theatre Horizon presents Grand Concourse as an issue play, urging the audience to "imagine no hunger" by joining community efforts to feed the needy in Montgomery County.
Their laudable goals might obscure Heidi Schreck's remarkable play, however, which accomplishes far more than calling attention to economic inequality. The hungry in Grand Concourse are largely offstage, though the drama is set in a Bronx church kitchen (believably detailed by Sheryl Liu, with working props by John Wendling and bathed in realistic fluorescent light by Mike Inwood). Three of the play’s four characters are employees, who are nearly as poor as the people they serve.
Samantha Rosentrater plays Shelley, an unconventional nun who's having trouble praying and who makes soup for the neighborhood needy. She employs Oscar (Randy Nuñez) and a young volunteer, Emma (Ariella Serur), whose unnerving humor is balanced by both her earnesty and the sympathy she compels because she's struggling with leukemia. An erudite yet unbalanced homeless man, Frog (David Bardeen), also befriends Emma.
Emma soon becomes our main focus, though Shelley's morning prayers provide intimate insights into her troubles. On her first day, Emma tells Oscar, "Some day I'm going to show up here and scare the shit out of you." She seems likely to become overinvolved with "guests," ignoring Shelley's instructions. She must "detach," Shelley warns ominously, "not from feelings, from… outcomes."
Emma's tenacity soon wins Shelley's trust and affection. "Most volunteers don't come back the next day," Shelley admits gratefully, "so good for you." Emma's cheerful idealism affects everyone, but she's mischievous, even mysterious. Among her expected questions to Shelley, like "Why become a nun?" she asks, "Do you ever fantasize about washing their feet?" And how does the wound Emma sustains in a kitchen mishap miraculously heal?
Their relationship takes surprising turns in Schreck's well-crafted 105-minute play of many short scenes. Staged with veracity by Beth Lopes, its scene changes, choreographed to sound designer Toby Pettit's haunting piano music, cleverly advance the story. Emma is the catalyst for changes in the others that cause as many problems as they solve. All four characters face crises that remind us anyone can be considered mentally ill. "People are fucked up," Frog counsels Shelley in a moment of clarity, "angels and assholes both."
Hope, faith, forgiveness
The ensemble's superb acting, starting with their believable kitchen activities but excelling far beyond, highlights Grand Concourse’s strength as a deeply disturbing, profoundly moving play that examines hope's fragility, faith's responsibilities, and forgiveness's burdens. Rosentrater compellingly embodies Shelley's strengths and insecurities in a nuanced performance. Serur's Emma glows with a puckish joy that makes us want to overlook her emotional frailty and lapses in judgment -- until her meltdowns backfire horrifically. Nunez's Oscar is a surprisingly complex nice guy who's in over his head. Bardeen -- the only actor familiar to area audiences -- proves extraordinary in a role radically different from his fine past performances.
I hope this fine production will inspire some much-needed help for the area's needy; Theatre Horizon's commitment to community and social justice is admirable. Just as important, Grand Concourse is a powerful work of theater that addresses another timely social need by sharing a powerful, personal story challenging our moral assumptions.