There’s a ton of feeling in the soup-kitchen play “Grand Concourse,” and every ounce of it rings true. That’s partly because playwright Heidi Schreck draws rich characters and provides a strong story that suits them, and partly because the performers in director Beth Lopes’ production at Theatre Horizon are so effective. They reveal their characters in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and in a story that takes wholly believable twists.
This satisfying night at the theater begins – and stays – in the kitchen of a Catholic Church in the Bronx, where day and night a nun and her volunteers offer whatever lunch and dinner they can for the neighborhood’s down-and-out. “This here’s what I call Shelley soup,” says the nun called Shelley, (the commanding and nuanced Samantha Rosentrater), who runs the kitchen. She’s putting barley, carrots, zucchini and potatoes into a pot – a cooking demonstration for her newest volunteer, a girlish 19-year-old named Emma (Ariella Serur, impressive in what becomes a demanding role).
Shelley prepares her new volunteer to deal with the clientele, who include guys like Frog, a smart man who sells jokes for a quarter and whose personality changes with his ability to take medication. Within minutes Frog (played by David Bardeen, a local actor who gets better and better and excels here) has sold a $1 booklet of jokes to Emma, initiating her into the culture of the place. And the ever-present handyman named Oscar (a pleasant and vulnerable Randy Nuñez) has already flirted with her.
Although “Grand Concourse” seems filled with characters as you watch it, only these four appear. And although the soup kitchen looms large in the play – during its run, Theatre Horizon is heading up hunger-awareness and giving projects – the play’s about a different sort of hunger that begs for spiritual nourishment, not actual food. Shelley, the nun, has become mired in her day-to-day soup-making mission; she finds it difficult to pray and even harder to shoulder the burdens of being an understanding nun. Emma is a young volunteer with a good heart, and she’s wrestling with depression – and losing. And acting out in dangerous ways.
This production lasts almost two hours without an intermission, but doesn’t have an ounce of fat. Lopes’ direction even uses one of the scene changes on Sheryl Liu’s industrial kitchen set to underscore the characters’ quirks, and Mike Inwood’s back-lit design during these quick interludes is particularly effective — everything comes across in striking black and white, in stark contrast to the plot’s gathering shades of gray.
The triumph of “Grand Concourse” is the way Heidi Schreck takes her play along a swift arc that begins with people doing good works and ends with them questioning their own potential for goodness, faith, even forgiveness. If they’re looking for easy answers, they’re in the wrong play.
—“Grand Concourse” runs through Feb. 26 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. 610.283.2230 or www.theatrehorizon.org.