A morality play in the most authentic, honest sense, its first local airing at Seattle Public Theater benefits from sterling work from the director and the cast, writes reviewer Misha Berson.
Faith. Charity. Compassion. Shelley has cultivated these admirable qualities, as a Catholic nun and manager of a Bronx soup kitchen, for decades.
Yet such fundamental attributes of a deeply caring person are tested daily, and sometimes moment to moment, in Heidi Schreck’s quietly powerful drama “Grand Concourse.” A morality play in the most authentic, honest sense, its first local airing at Seattle Public Theater benefits from the sterling work of a four-member ensemble and from Annie Laureau’s generally understated direction, dotted with a few well-placed explosions.
Schreck began her theatrical career in Seattle in the mid-1990s, as a co-founder of the vital fringe troupe Printer’s Devil. Since moving to New York with her director husband Kip Fagan, she’s thrived as an Obie-winning actor, playwright and screenwriter-producer on such top-line cable TV series as “Nurse Jackie,” “Billions,” and recently the boundary-busting “I Love Dick.”
by Heidi Schreck. Through June 11 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Green Lake Drive N.; (206-524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org).
“Grand Concourse,” which debuted Off Broadway in 2014, is small in scale and a bit choppy in format. (Seattle Public exacerbates this by linking the many short scenes with annoying elevator Muzak). But the dialogue is adroit, the characters engaging and multidimensional. Most striking here is Shreck’s intelligent and thoughtful exploration of the fine line between altruism and self-preservation.
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In a deeply layered performance by Faith Bennett Russell, Shelley is a sturdy and committed giver. She works tirelessly, manages her assistant Oscar (Tyler Trerise) and soup kitchen regular Frog (Corey McDaniel) with firmness but respect. Yet something is gnawing at her soul. She’s so anxious about her mounting qualms and festering burnout, she sets a microwave timer to rehearse how to explain herself to God.
Enter Emma (Hannah Ruwe), a waifish college dropout with multicolored hair and goth eye makeup. Initially meek and hesitant, she desperately wants to be trustworthy and of service. But that’s soon at odds with a needy streak that produces spasms of erratic, hurtful behavior she begs to be forgiven for.
Over 90 minutes, “Grand Concourse” considers from various viewpoints the impulses behind, and the limits of, “doing good” — not vis-à-vis the needy, but among the people doling out their soup.
Shelley devoutly spends her days tending to others but hardens her heart against her own estranged, dying father. Emma seeks gratification by helping mentally disabled Frog get a job — a well-intentioned deed that backfires.
In a poignant meltdown, McDaniel sheds all loveable-crackpot mannerisms to reveal the sheer panic in Frog’s disordered mind. Politicians take note: It isn’t the lack of a job that prevents Frog’s assimilation into the mainstream. It’s something intrinsic and unfixable, which those who care for him need to accept, and help him cope with, as best they can.
More simplistic is the semi-caricatured Oscar, a happy-go-lucky Puerto Rican (Trerise could dial down the heavy accent). He provides some light comic relief and faces more clear-cut moral dilemmas.
Oscar is attracted to, then repulsed by Emma after he learns she’s not who she claims to be — a charade that nearly destroys her relationships in the kitchen. And later, in Ruwe’s persuasively mercurial portrayal, this sincere yet careless kid delivers a more jolting betrayal that is much harder to excuse.
In one of those counterintuitive strokes that leads to dramatic revelation, this betrayal has a strange healing power. It provides Shelley with an epiphany about the limits of benevolence and the need to tend to her own, imperfect life. To err, “Grand Concourse” acknowledges, is human. But only the divine may be capable of total forgiveness.