Kevin Clarke as Frog, Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Megan Trout as Emma, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar
Kevin Clarke as Frog, Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Megan Trout as Emma, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar in the Shotgun Players’ production of Grand Concourse. Photo: Pak Han

Why do people volunteer at soup kitchens? Is it so that they may selflessly serve others? Is it to make themselves feel worthy? Satisfy religious commitments? Or is it to forget their own problems? These questions and themes of friendship and falseness are presented in the stimulating and entertaining Grand Concourse, well directed by Shotgun’s Joanie McBrien. Playwright Heidi Schreck is a two-time Obie Award-winning actress and author of There Are No More Big Secrets, Creature, and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.

Fresh from its New York and Chicago runs, Grand Concourse is set in the kitchen area of a soup kitchen (and soup is the only meal on the menu) in a Bronx Catholic church basement, run by the habit-less nun Shelley (great work by Cathleen Riddley). Shelley arrives early each morning so that she can scrub the dining room after the night janitors have finished cleaning it. Shelley is having trouble concentrating on her prayers, however, and has taken to lengthening her prayers by timing them with the microwave timer. Watching her look into the microwave as she prays is charming, as well as spiritual — in a 21st-century kind of way.

Shelley’s calm, caring and conscientious demeanor seems too good to be true, and it turns out that it is. She is suffering from the burnout common to the self-sacrificing. We see her question whether her work is actually helpful and learn that her reasons for joining her religious order more closely resemble an act of teenage rebellion than true religious conviction.

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley in Grand Concourse. Photo: Pak Han
Cathleen Riddley as Shelley in the Shotgun Players’ production of Grand Concourse. Photo: Pak Han

Empathetic and likeable handyman Oscar (charismatic Caleb Cabrera), is a Dominican worker who keeps the unruly diners in line, and is in love with the unseen Lydia. Oscar and Shelley are comrades in arms in the kitchen until the sudden arrival of a new volunteer — pretty, 19-year-old, college dropout, Emma (first-rate acting by Megan Trout). Emma soon announces that she has leukemia and is volunteering so that she can lose herself in something outside her illness.

Emma’s appearance at the kitchen effects one of the daily homeless diners, Frog (terrific portrayal by Kevin Clarke), who suffers from alcoholism, paranoia and has a strange sense of humor. He is taken in by Emma’s young charms and wants to spend more time in the kitchen because of her. Frog, as well as Oscar, provide well-needed comic relief, with Frog’s condition being sensitively handled.

But from the start, Emma disturbs the happy harmony of the soup kitchen. All of her actions, even small ones, are strange and “off.” In spite of, or because of, Oscar’s happiness with Lydia, Emma appears in the middle of the night and performs oral sex on him. (Oscar’s denials of responsibility are reminiscent of those of a certain U.S. President).

At the close of the first act, I thought I knew in which direction the play was heading. But I was wrong. Rather than spoil my readers’ enjoyment of Grand Concourse, I’m leaving it to the audience to try to predict the resolution of the play.

One of the ironies of the play is its location. The Bronx’s tree-lined Grand Concourse was modeled after Paris’s Champs-Élysées and was, in its heyday of the 1910s-1950s, lined with fine examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne style apartment houses. White flight in the 1960s, New York City’s policy of relocating welfare recipients there, plus arson and vandalism, led to the conditions depicted in Grand Concourse. In 2011, however, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission declared a historic district on the Grand Concourse and the area is now being gentrified.

I highly recommend Grand Concourse for its fine performances, tight direction, and unsentimental, authentic script, which provides no easy answers to life’s difficult issues of mental illness, lies, secrets, family, forgiveness and redemption.

Grand Concourse is playing nightly at the Ashby Stage through Aug. 21, and in repertory through January 2017. For information visit Shotgun Players online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...