Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don't need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down — temporarily or permanently — by the harsh realities of our teeming cities.
But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.
Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren't out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we're behind the scenes — in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen — so we're mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.
Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can't nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it's really her time at the kitchen — first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker — that shapes the arc of our story.
About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling — can I admit it was a worry? — that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We've seen a few of these, haven't we?
Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.
Her effect isn't so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar's eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.
There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup — a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she's stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven't the sisters thought of doing that before? It makes Shelley start wondering.
It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn't primarily concerned about Emma's apprenticeship. This playwright's eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What's simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence — and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It's a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.
There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different — and how unevenly distributed — these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn't been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CPCC. Here she's rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger's is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister's high-strung struggles.
Emma's confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley's, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards' demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada's costume designs spurring her in that direction. She's sneaky and deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she's just there.
Watching things unravel, we don't know exactly how to analyze Emma's ultimate violence. It's passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.
As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it's easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror — but I didn't detect much in Schreck's script that exposed this shortfall.
Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly's entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine's fight choreography had been more meticulous.
Notably more shabby and less clinical than the Playwrights Horizons' off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney's set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein's prop designs, still richly detailed.
The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters — the mother, the head nun, a pesky teen delinquent — along the way.
We sift through a cunningly calculated iness to get at Schreck's takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won't be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you've seen before, but you'll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.