Faith and forgiveness underscore Steppenwolf's 'Grand Concourse'
In a play about faith and forgiveness set in a parish soup kitchen, a stately old church makes the perfect backdrop. Dark and imposing, the house of worship looming over Joey Wade's superb set for Steppenwolf Theatre's "Grand Concourse" says as much about the characters as it does about the neighborhood where Heidi Schreck's engaging, clear-eyed dramedy unfolds.
The scaffolding surrounding the building indicates a renovation in progress, but the torn safety netting suggests work has slowed or stopped. That also applies to Schreck's characters. all of whom are struggling emotionally or financially through a kind of personal rehabilitation.
Among them is Shelley (Mariann Mayberry, Steppenwolf's go-to actor of the moment), a nun sans habit. She is experiencing a crisis of faith that makes her unable to pray except in one-minute increments, which she measures by the timer on the microwave oven.
Shelley -- whose gruff compassion comes after years of interacting with troubled souls who can turn violent in an instant -- presides over the church's soup kitchen. Outdated but spotless thanks to Shelley's tireless efforts, the kitchen is located off the Grand Concourse, the once-majestic Bronx boulevard inspired by the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
For many of the homeless "guests" battling drugs, alcohol or mental illness, Shelley's is their only meal of the day. Unfortunately her attempt to nourish their bodies does little to alleviate the overwhelming need and despair that trouble their souls.
"It feels pointless sometimes, keeping people alive for so little," observes Shelley, whose faith may have dimmed but whose compassion never wanes.
Enter new volunteer Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a needy, 19-year-old college dropout whose cancer diagnosis has inspired her to seek purpose in her life. A welcome addition to the understaffed kitchen, Emma inspires maternal affection in Shelley, who is estranged from her dying father. The young woman also receives gratitude from Frog (a garrulous, genial regular played by Tim Hopper, who brings substance to the stereotypical oddball) after she helps him find a job and a place to live.
But Emma is also something of a provocateur. Her flirtation with the practically engaged Oscar (an amusing, agreeable Victor Almanzar), a kind handyman and security guard, goes way beyond innocent, suggesting something is not quite right with the newcomer.
Directed by Yasen Peyankov, Steppenwolf's "Grand Concourse" is sturdy, respectful and unsentimental. It unfolds as a slice of urban life served up by a playwright with a keen sense of character and a talent for upending expectations in a provocative and satisfying way. For the most part, Schreck's characters are authentic and three-dimensional. Case in point: the complex, conflicted Shelley. The exception, and it's a significant one, is Emma, who feels incomplete and whose motives feel unjustified. That said, Uomoleale does well with what she's given, delivering an intriguing portrait of need and manipulation.
But in the end, "Grand Concourse" emerges as a showcase for Mayberry. Ever-truthful, quietly vulnerable, she is magnificent, particularly in the second half of this intermissionless production.
Shaken to her core by an unexpected confession, Shelley stands silent as the microwave timer ticks down, struggling to find words to convey her grief and shock and failing utterly. That's followed by a gut-wrenching response to a fatal betrayal and -- finally -- a benediction, a moving scene near the end of the play where Shelley offers comfort to a desperate, disturbed man. Delicate, moving and beautifully acted, it's the finest among Mayberry's memorable moments, suggesting that conflict over one's faith does not diminish one's grace.
"Grand Concourse"★ ★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Aug. 30. Also 2 p.m. Aug. 5, 12, 19 and 26; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 23. No 7:30 p.m. show Aug. 23 or 30
Running time: About 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission
Parking: Metered street parking; $10 at the Steppenwolf garage
Rating: For adults; contains mature subject matter, sexual situations and strong language