Review: ‘Grand Concourse’ at Open Book Theatre
By Alexander Trice
TRENTON, Mich.–Grand Concourse’, written by Heidi Schreck, at Open Book Theatre here is a play that is set entirely in the kitchen of a facility that feeds the poor in The Bronx. The play centers around a nun, Sister Shelley, whose vocation is to cook for the destitute souls who arrive through her cafeteria door, though we never actually see the cafeteria.
Sister Shelley (Krista Schafer) is having doubts abut her vocation, becoming untethered from her faith. Superbly played, Schafer molds the character around herself in seemingly effortless fashion. The production is directed by Kez Settle who also provides a charmingly modern sound design, and gets layered performances out of this small cast.
The pace of the play can seem somewhat jarring. The play begins quite slow, but when the action takes off it jumps at you like a rocket out of nowhere. That rocket is powered by James Abbott II as “Oscar” and Henry Ballestros as “Frog.” Ballestros does a fantastic job of playing to the audience–crazy, shock-value humor, which is very necessary because it stands alone in what is otherwise a script full of quite depressing situations.
Abbott II’s shocking, honest and humorous performance of Oscar, pulling off the dialect of the Dominican handyman with ease. Rounding out the cast is the shockingly realistic performance by Allison Megroet of a 19-year old neuro-divergent runaway. Megroet’s character, Emma, is the instigator in the action, and the antagonist. But she does an expert job of walking that line, getting the audience to care about her character, in part, because of her mental-health problems that remain vague but real.
Emma is fragile in some ways, but sturdy in others. She has an illness, but also bold plans to find jobs for the regulars at the soup kitchen. Emma finds Frog a place to sleep, for example, as well as a series of job interviews.
Schafer’s depiction of Shelley as a nun whose heart is not all the way in the vocation is unsettling, but genuine. She did not enter the sisterhood with the purest of intentions; in part to spite her Mother who remained with her abusive father against Shelley’s sensibilities. Shelley has an authoritative and judgemental side that comes out, sometimes under-cutting her likability. But since when did nuns ever worry about being liked?
Ballestros’ Frog goes from being a predictable and at times annoying jokester to revealing a touching vulnerable side when he doubts his ability to handle one of the job interviews Emma has arranged for him.
Gwen Lindsey and Greg Mosley collaborated on a set design that combines two-and-three-dimensional elements, which is impressive but also left me wondering why they didn’t go for completely 3D, or 2D. What was equally impressive was the amount of real plumbing on the set, and their ability to make good use of a difficult space in which to build.
The set also stood alone as a piece of art showcased in the pre-show, while also successfully functioning for the play–something which is very important. Harley Miah (lighting) and Cheryl Zemke (costumes) round out this production team, both showcasing their expertise and delivering exactly what the production needed. Harley’s skill of identifying different times of the day, as well as his ability to define with the lights the differences between sun angle, and inside versus outside light, were all definitely on display.
There is a constant threat of sharp objects being actively used on the stage in almost every scene: it is enough to keep anyone who has stage-managed a production or cared about actors’ safety on edge for the entire show. Props Master Samantha Silva deserves mention for delivering the goods with all of the real vegetables on stage.
Grand Concourse is a study in matters of faith, friendship , secrets, lies, all of the ingredients of a good story about friends and family trying to survive, if not thrive, in a setting dominated by church and religion. Catch it. Performance Dates are : Sept 15, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30, and Oct 5, 6, 7 at 8pm, and Sundays Sept 17 & 24, Oct 1 & 8 at 2pm. Sunday matinees are followed by a discussion with the artists.