Chicago Theater Review: GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 12, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)Heidi Schreck’s powerfully pleasing play exists for its final moment. So this critique will be strategically selective and shorter than usual. In any case, thanks to Yasen Peyankov’s sweetly sensitive staging (a Chicago premiere by Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Schreck’s five characters count as much as the conclusion. Totally grounded in their gritty Bronx milieu–a church soup kitchen (fully functional in Joey Wade’s meticulous set) seen over several weeks–they’re fully fleshed and felt. After 105 minutes, you feel you’ve know them much longer, if not been them (and not just in past lives).

Presiding over this do-gooders diner is Sister Shelley (Mariann Mayberry), a nun too aware of the GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)Sisyphean task of feeding, sometimes sheltering, homeless druggies and vagrant losers. Despite her conviction that people are holy (which also implies the opposite), Shelley has been ground down by mass adversity: There’s “a lot of need” out there and diminishing resources to meet a mounting challenge. Mired in a mid-life crisis, Shelley’s too-tried faith has shrunk: Now she times her tentative prayers by the church microwave. She also contends with aging and unloving parents in California but cherishes her cat, her privacy and what tested hope persists. Helping her in this basement kitchen is Latino security guard Oscar (Victor Almanzar), an affable womanizer saddled with predictable relationship trauma with his GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)beloved Rosa.

The too-representative “customer” is mentally disturbed epileptic Frog (Tim Hopper through Aug. 9; Francis Guinan through Aug. 30). A homeless ex-hippie who sells joke books and tells fortunes, this medicated misfit and short-circuited intellectual fancies himself a radical reformer. But he’s something else when he’s off his meds. New to this obscure pantry, arriving on a full moon (to Oscar’s concern), is 19-year-old Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a college dropout from a good home who wants to slum it with the poor. Hinting at a displaced soul, Emma has dyed her hair, supposedly to alter her essence (as if it’s ever that easy). She will get Frog a job and otherwise reform this fallen world.

GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)

Every questing play needs to shake up whatever status quo it suggests, if only to avoid documenting “a day in the life” of–whatever. Emma’s arrival does that with a vengeance. Grand Concourse (non-judgmentally named for its address) goes further. (But I won’t: In a play this fresh there must be no spoilers.)

GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)

A very satisfying script, Schreck’s one-act probes Shelley’s spirituality (which at its best is pure practicality) to its logical limit. It dares to ask whether forgiveness makes us more or less human. Are there acts that can’t be pardoned? Does anyone but the victim (dead or alive) really have the right to absolve an offender? The no-nonsense, grown-up ending–utterly refreshing and purged of bullshit–is the most redemptive payoff since Nora slammed the door in A Doll’s House. Steppenwolf’s valuable offering does for religion what Ibsen did for marriage.

GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)

Peyankov does the rest, having simply (which it never is) found the right players for born-again parts. Mayberry, so marvelous in Steppenwolf’s equally uncompromising Good People, hits absolute authenticity with Shelley. Oscar comes off as if filmed without Almanzar’s knowledge. Hopper’s Frog is vintage walking wounded, his “quiet desperation” loud as it gets. Above all, Uomoleale’s entitled Emma is so human it hurts.

GRAND CONCOURSE (Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago)

photos by Michael Brosilow

Grand Concourse
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 N Halsted St
ends on August 30, 2015
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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