SpeakEasy's "Grand Concourse": An Unconventional Nun

Alejandro Simoes, Thomas Derrah, Melinda Lopez & Ally Dawson in "Grand Concourse"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)

Sorry I'm stuck I'm stuck” begins the attempted prayer by unconventional nun Shelley (Melinda Lopez), as she finds she's gotten out of the habit, in the SpeakEasy Stage Company New England premiere of Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck. In a sparse script virtually devoid of punctuation, making for very realistic and natural dialogue, Sister Shelley resorts to timing her conversation with her God by means of a microwave (the only spoiler you'll find here, but one couldn't resist sharing this example of the playwright's bizarre sense of humor) in the industrial soup kitchen in the belly of a Bronx church. Shelley is nothing if not supremely self-aware (not at all atypical in religious life that stresses introspection), thus resulting in a crisis of faith for someone who inexplicably no longer loves her work. She finds herself more comfortable in dealing with the needs of others than dealing with her own pain, later revealed, and is beginning to entertain thoughts of alternate perspectives. The title of the play refers to the literal street (the longest through street in the Bronx) that was long ago planned to equal or at least mimic the Champs Elysees in Paris but has become the locale for the poorest of counties. It also references the concept of a grand coming together of people, but as the play develops, reality intervenes and challenges not only Shelley's inner turmoil but some larger issues as well, from the apparent dichotomy of selfishness vs. service to the difficulty of helping others when one is inwardly broken, to the fundamental question of what it means to forgive.

Shelley is belatedly coming to the realization that she is becoming detached not from feelings but from outcomes as she interacts with security guard Oscar (Alejandro Simoes) and wacky homeless
jokester Frog (Thomas Derrah), described as a “manipulator” by Shelly even before we first meet him. Into this milieu steps Emma (Ally Dawson), a nineteen-year-old volunteer, on her first day, seemingly looking for a sense of purpose, who will become the catalyst for the tumult that follows. Though her first reaction to the soup kitchen regulars is a valid one, that there is a lot of need present, she subsequently becomes the proverbial straw that breaks Shelley's back, as well as a bit of a wake-up call. Though Shelley first remarks that Emma brings a lot of light to their underserved and vulnerable population, as the young woman's flaws become more evident in her depression, inconstancy, and eventual inability to keep commitments, the older woman comes to realize that offering help can be a way of seeking help (or needing to be needed). There are eventual conflicts, personal secrets, and rather unexpected betrayals along Shelley's journey, and a great deal of humanity as well.

What first appeared as a world divided into givers and receivers of help devolves into a realization that there are some poor souls in their flock who suffer not so much from poverty as from mental illness. Some of these damaged individuals, like Emma, see right through to the insecurity that makes all of the other characters susceptible to manipulation. In the end, Shelley finds she must face the stark reality that perhaps there are acts that cannot be forgiven, and that forgiveness is a process, not a default strategy, telling Emma that what she did “was evil...I'll be relieved of obligations to forgive you. I don't want to forgive you, ever, ever, ever”. Shelley is not going to forgive her, which the playwright observes is a liberating moment that would allow her to reach authentic forgiveness. She even washes her hands in a nod to Pontius Pilate, which any nun would recognize, as what Schreck calls an “act of grace”.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, never fear, for Schreck laces her scenes with abundant humor, expertly delivered by her cast of four. Any opportunity to experience the acting skills of Derrah is cause for hurrahs, and to see him on stage (for the first time ever) with the wondrous Lopez is grand concourse indeed. They're ably supported by the excellent Simoes and relative newcomer Dawson, under the extraordinarily keen direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary with meticulous Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (from the countless complex props, to the broken stained glass panes covered with plywood, bilingual posted notices, and more food on hand than in the musical Waitress), detailed Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, fine Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (with a lot of blackouts), and realistic Sound Design by Lee Shuna. All around, this is a superlative piece of storytelling.

As Schreck has stated about the implications of her work, “figuring out one's purpose in today's political climate is more vital than ever.....if you're not political, not addressing the system, not trying to solve those problems on a systemic level, is what you're doing effective?” She also quotes famed Catholic Social Activist Dorothy Day: “the gospel has taken away our right forever to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor...giving is something we just ought to do”. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that the better off one is, the less likely one is to empathize with people. O'Leary notes the play's universal application in its simplicity that mirrors “our individual struggle to find our own capacity for faith in things much bigger than ourselves”. One's faith, especially facing atrocities such as the proposed federal budget, is tested every day. Who could have foreseen that one's most appropriate response would be resistance?

The character of Frog divides humanity into “angels and assholes”, and even Shelley yells to some neighborhood rock throwers: “Jesus loves you, but you're making it hard for Him”. In this wise and witty play, one could hope for a bit more back story for all of the characters, but especially Shelley. Schreck's naturalistic style and cryptic asides hint at more complexity in tantalizing ways, but who are we to complain about a few lacunae? After all, it might seem unseemly and ungrateful in a soup kitchen to leave feeling hungry, for which one should perhaps beg absolution.

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