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Chicago by John Olson

Grand Concourse
Steppenwolf Theatre

Mariann Mayberry, Brittany Uomoleale, Tim Hopper, and Victor Almanzar
There are those in the political world who have taken the position that all social welfare programs should be administered by faith-based institutions rather than society (i.e. government programs). Heidi Shreck's Grand Concourse, which was first produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York and is now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, is a look inside one such social service organization. It's set in a soup kitchen in the basement of a Bronx Catholic church, but I imagine its observations about the demands on those who dedicate their lives to helping the needy would resonate with any such social workers.

The kitchen is run by Shelly (Mariann Mayberry), a street-smart and hardened nun who seems a bit worn down by the continual needs of the population the kitchen serves—mostly homeless men with mental illnesses of various sorts. "Such need," remarks Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a 19-year-old college dropout on her first shift of volunteering as the play opens. Apparently typical of the men they feed is Frog (Tim Hopper), a former radical intellectual who is paranoid-schizophrenic and lapses in and out of a certain level of lucidity and functionality depending upon how closely he follows his drug regimen. Emma—who asked to work in the kitchen as a way to get out of the house following her withdrawal from college—is quickly shown to have issues of her own. She has sudden outbursts of inappropriate behavior, including some heavy flirting with the engaged Oscar (Victor Almanzar), the Dominican-born security guard and handyman who works at the church while he attends community college in hopes of upward mobility.

Emma, a mildly goth-appearing, gawky girl, wins sympathy from Shelly and Oscar when she blames her behavior on her treatment for Leukemia. In spite of her initial bumpy start, she develops a sense of optimism and energy that convinces Shelly to let her help the men find jobs and places to stay. Shreck's quite funny script—finding its laughs in gentle jabs at the Catholic Church and satire of the state of our social safety net as well as the clueless behavior of the paranoid Frog—is episodic, with many short scenes all set in the kitchen, realistically designed by Joey Wade. The single location and small cast (just the four aforementioned characters) make Grand Concourse reminiscent of some of the best sitcoms (think "Taxi," "Cheers" or many of the Norman Lear comedies). It's a heightened reality, grounded in truth.

The intermissionless 105-minute play seems to lack a traditional arc. It doesn't go where you think it will and there are some surprises along the way, but it all leads up to a point. It would an egregious spoiler to say how it gets there, so let's just say the play is an uncompromising reflection on sacrifice, grace, and forgiveness. It asks if it's fair to expect saints like Shelly to bear the burden of caring for the needy with so little help from society at large. Are there limits to the degree of self-sacrifice and forgiveness one can expect of a human being—even those who have dedicated their lives to religious service? Those who want and are expected to follow the principles of their faith as completely as possible? These are incredibly tough and deep philosophical questions, and the play is surprisingly provocative for such a comedy-drama.

Director Yasen Peyankov has led his cast to a perfect tone that delivers the laughs while sharply examining the social issues underneath. He has the benefit of the perfect actress for the role of Shelly: M. Mayberry once again shows the pain and grit she displayed as Margie in Good People at Steppenwolf. She takes us through Shelly's journey from a sort of resigned boredom to optimism, showing her crises of faith, regret over lost opportunities and her struggles to forgive her father for unnamed past misdeeds. It's an incredibly layered performance, with Mayberry suggesting much about the character that is not explicit in the words. Brittany Uomoleale navigates the terrain of her erratic character with skill, assuming a clunky physical presence that shows just how unsettled and insecure Emma is. Almanzar mines some of the linguistic stereotypes of the recent Latin-American immigrant, but gives us humor and heart for an empathetic portrayal of the flawed, but very human and decent Oscar. The always reliable Tim Hopper is an amusing but at times frightening street person. Hopper will be succeeded in the role by Francis Guinan from August 11 through the 30th.

It's surprising to me that this play didn't transfer to Broadway after its three-week run at Playwrights Horizons. It's funny, topical, and leaves the audience with something to talk and think about afterwards. Accessible and meaty, it's truly a play for our times and deserves a long life and large audience.

Grand Concourse will run through August 30, 2015, at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. For ticket information visit or call 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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