By Logan Meyer, A&E editor
Lies, adultery, prayer and sin. Really, what more can you ask for?
Heidi Schreck’s “Grand Concourse” has it all. Running at SpeakEasy Stage Company until April 1, the play tells the story of Shelley, an easy-going Catholic nun who manages a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Shelley is struggling with her faith and uncertain of her devotion, when Emma, a recent college dropout, begins volunteering for her.
Emma’s help and outlook on life are at first a welcome relief to the day-to-day monotony of work at the soup kitchen, but it doesn’t take long to find out that Emma is a truly special kind of crazy. In an effort to garner sympathy from those around her, Emma lies about having cancer and fakes chemotherapy treatment. Months pass before Emma’s secret is brought to light, though Shelley and the other kitchen staff somehow find it in them to forgive her. How very Catholic of them.
Later, Shelley is forced to travel home to visit her dying father and deal with other family issues. Having given Emma a paid position, she leaves her to run the place largely on her own, and also entrusts Emma with the care of her cat.
While Shelley is away, Emma decides she can’t handle the stresses of working in the kitchen and storms out in a melodramatic teen rage which is absolutely rash and unnecessary. But hey, you don’t know her life, right? Shelley returns to an understaffed kitchen and, to the heart-wrenching grief of the audience, a cat that starved to death, lonely and desperate.
Whether or not that summary captures the variety and breadth of emotions “Grand Concourse” brings to the table, it is nonetheless an absolute rollercoaster of feeling. But more than just a fierce tug at the heartstrings, Schreck’s script brings to the spotlight numerous contemporary issues like mental illness, compassion, faith and forgiveness.
Emma struggles with severe depression while other characters fight different obstacles to maintain their mental health. While the work portrays a starkly negative view of the issues at first, the forgiveness and support brought by other characters is nothing if not a comfort to those confronted with their own mental illnesses.
Shelley is undoubtedly the most interesting character in “Grand Concourse,” and has suffered her fair share of depression throughout her life. That, however, is not what makes the character phenomenal. Even though she questions her faith and inevitably leaves the church and rescinds her life as a nun, Shelley is the epitome of sympathy and charity. She reminds us that, regardless of whatever struggles we may have as individuals, we are all capable of kindness and grace. Plus, Melinda Lopez, the actress portraying Shelley, is the next Allison Janney, and the world needs more actors like them.
Though “Grand Concourse” was written earlier in the decade, Schreck’s commentary on faith is far from untimely. Questioning faith is arguably an integral part of the human experience, but Shelley’s struggle with faith in herself, in the world and in her god reigns true in many ways for this generation as we question our own faith in our government, our future prospects and our world.
Photo courtesy Glenn Perry Photography