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Theater Tue Jul 14 2015

Steppenwolf Tackles Faith and Suffering in Grand Concourse


Photo by Michael Brosilow.

With a title like Grand Concourse (named after the Bronx's largest thoroughfare), you might expect Steppenwolf's newest production to be massive in scope and scale. Instead, Heidi Schreck's (Nurse Jackie) brisk, funny play features a small cast in a tiny church soup kitchen, and an intimate look at the relativity of suffering and the versatility of love.

If that sounds heavy, don't worry. Schreck's light voice and director Yasen Peyankov's nimble pacing meld perfectly with this cast's sense of humor. And while the play tackles the role of spiritual faith in the 21st century, it does so without preaching.

Schreck's soup kitchen is run by Shelley (Mariann Mayberry), a middle-aged nun who's resorted to timing her prayers with a microwave in an attempt to mechanically restore her faith. Shelley is joined by Oscar (Victor Almanzar), a Dominican-American devoted to his off-stage girlfriend; and Frog (Tim Hopper), a charming homeless man who'll sell you a joke for a quarter.

The proverbial pot is stirred by the arrival of Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a beautiful and seemingly naive 19-year-old volunteer. "She's cute," says Oscar, and at first Emma's effect on the soup kitchen is a positive one. Later, Oscar changes tack: "Okay, so you're crazy...I mean it's like, I'm gonna stay away, but you're still hot. You know, from way back here, from a distance."

It turns out Emma has more than a secret or two, and Frog's schizophrenia isn't the only instance of mental illness in the soup kitchen. As Shelley's crisis of faith and Oscar's integrity are tested by Emma, Schreck explores interesting questions about physical and mental suffering, and about love. Not romantic love, which the ancient Greeks called eros, but primarily the other three kinds of love they defined for us as agape, philia, and storge.

On the surface, Grand Concourse is a play about preparing and sharing food, but thematically it's still a story about sustenance, be it emotional, spiritual, or sociological. After a false Hollywood ending 20 minutes from the curtain, Schreck takes the story somewhere simultaneously darker and brighter in its revelations regarding human nature, revelations that the audience at Steppenwolf found controversial in an after-the-show discussion. But it's the final scenes of Grand Concourse that make it so heart-rending and unique, that add punctuation marks to everything that came before.

Joey Wade's scenic design is so realistic you can see grease on the kitchen's surfaces, and there seems to be a working microwave, sink, and well-stocked refrigerator. Giant stained-glass windows loom over the kitchen, their darkness a powerful contrast to the warm light below. The cast's prowess at chopping vegetables (thanks to credited "Knife Skills Tutor" Hans Mooser, a chef at The Chopping Block) adds an extra layer of realism and tension.

Brittany Uomoleale is magnetic and subtle as Emma, a role that could have been melodramatic, while Victor Almanzar emanates charm as Oscar. Reliable ensemble member Tim Hopper steals the scene whenever he's on stage as Frog, particularly during his rambling thoughts on mankind's role as predator, "snapping carrot bones" with our teeth and murdering leaves of lettuce despite their cries of pain. (Programming note: Hopper will be replaced by fellow ensemble member Francis Guinan as of August 11.)

But it's Mariann Mayberry's restrained performance as Shelley that will deservedly receive the most acclaim. She owns the play's most demanding role with such finesse as to appear natural and effortless, whether it's through comedy ("Jesus loves you but you're making it very difficult for him!") or muted fury.

Combined with Schreck's knack for dialogue and the gifts of the rest of the cast and crew, Mayberry delivers one of the summer's must-see performances. The New York Times called the original New York run "modest but likeable" last fall (as if the two adjectives were mutually exclusive), but ambition aside, the intersection of talent on display at Steppenwolf in Grand Concourse is genuinely impressive.

Grand Concourse continues at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, through August 30, every day except Mondays. Tickets run from $15 to $62 and can be purchased online or via telephone at 312-335-1650.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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