Grand Concourse

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 11, 2016

In "Grand Concourse," playwright Heidi Schreck takes a hard look at faith, mental illness, and finding your place in the world. Through the prism of a soup kitchen, where people come to find sustenance, Schreck considers the duality of helping and needing help, and how we each go about handling life's sorrows.

The soup kitchen is run by Sister Shelley, a nun whose faith in God has wandered away. We meet her in the midst of trying to chase it down, a methodical attempt to restart the habit of prayer and reliance on her faith through a sort of interval training; she sets the soup kitchen's microwave timer in increasing increments. Like trying to start a dead engine, she looks for a click, a spark, for something to catch in one of these attempts. The timer always dings before the right words reach her lips.

Shelley soon meets Emma, a young woman looking to volunteer. Despite Shelley's reservations about her, Emma jumps in with both feet. Emma's enthusiasm rushes into the kitchen, knocking things over, taking people by surprise. Oscar, Shelley's handyman/strong-arm assistant, is wary of Emma too, but her energy eventually overwhelms him too. And when Emma meets Frog, one of the homeless people served by the soup kitchen, the combination of their unbridled personalities sparks another different energy.

"Grand Concourse" shows the effects of living with people with mental illness. Emma's diagnosis is never made clear, but it appears that she is living with some form of bi-polar disorder. Frog has boundary issues, is paranoid, and becomes angry and violent when his emotions are out of control.

Shelley, the stability in the storm, is handling depression while she's trying to manage the varying personalities in her circle. Oscar does his best to stay disengaged, but eventually finds himself tottering from the effects of people's out of control emotions.

While serious, "Grand Concourse" has funny moments, rather like life does. "Jesus loves you, but you're making it hard for him!" In encountering people who are out of balance, how do we maintain our own emotional regulation? Shelley, overwhelmed with grief at a recent loss, rose out of her own need to help Frog when she realized that he needed more than she did that moment. Shelley's coping method is to make order in chaos, but having lost touch with her guiding faith, she founders. Each character is affected by the fluctuations in their world.

Occasionally, an actor shows up with such a magnetic presence and profound talent that you can't take your eyes off of them. This is the case with Ayanna Berkshire, who plays Shelley with a weary determination, the moral compass who isn't so sure she should be guiding anyone. Berkshire is an actor I want to watch again and again.

Emma, played by Jahnavi Alyssa, is a ball of electricity, whose entrance on stage caused the room to crackle. Her portrayal of manic behavior was immediately recognizable and discomfiting. Allen Nause played Frog, a charming "character" who sells joke books and steals from the refrigerator. He's the guy you're never sure about, and Nause imbued Frog with a bouncing unpredictability.

John San Nicolas rounded out the quartet as Oscar, the friendly and good-looking handyman who jokingly propositions his nun coworker every day. Nicolas performs a kind of up-close magic with his expressions, sharing his character's thoughts with the subtle lift of an eyebrow.

Playwright Schreck gave the audience a lot to unpack in this play. Who are we helping when we live to serve? How do we trust people we're unsure about? How do we react and respond to unbalanced people? What does forgiveness mean? These themes have rumbled around in my brain, as unresolved for me as they were for the characters.

I applaud the fact that there is no tidy resolution to this play, that our expectations for these people's behavior are undermined by realistic actions. "Grand Concourse" is thought-provoking, funny, and at times painful, because it's so much like real life. It reminds you, though, that "people are fucked up, angels and assholes," and the best we can do is look at them with gentleness.

"Grand Concourse" runs through June 5 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, Portland, OR 97205. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1278 or visit https://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/2015-16-season/grand-concourse/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.