Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Nun Shelley oversees the soup kitchen that resides in a former church on the Grand Concourse, a major roadway in the Bronx. Wearing jeans and sneakers, Shelley is not only a modern nun, with no habit in site, but lately she's been having difficulty praying. New 19-year-old volunteer Emma arrives to help in the kitchen and, through a series of short scenes that take place over the next several months, we see how Emma proves to have both positive and negative influences on all of those around her.
Grand Concourse shows us that everyone has baggage and plenty of drama in their lives, and they can sometimes be inconsistent in their actions. It also asks the question: People who have taken up caregiving roles, like social workers and nuns, are constantly having to take care of those who are needy, depressed, and less fortunate, but who takes care of them? All of the characters in this play are at some type of crossroads in their lives, so the title has a double meaning.
The cast is pretty terrific. Debra Rich's portrayal of Shelley perfectly displays the many sides of the character. She shows us how Shelley struggles quietly with her evocation and how she never stops working, perhaps to avoid having to deal with her strained relationship with some members of her family. Rich exhibits these many layers naturally and beautifully. As Emma, Shelby Daeffler is very convincing as an impulsive, out of control and just a little bit crazy college drop-out. While Daeffler is good at portraying the many changing moods of Emma, from needy to depressive and even manipulative, I only wish her final desperate plea for forgiveness were a bit more heartwrenching.
Luke Gomez brings the right level of care and understanding to Oscar, the man who wears many hats around the soup kitchen: janitor, security guard, and handy man. As Frog, the homeless man who has made the soup kitchen his home, even sometimes camping outside in the rectory, Tom Noga is brilliant. He has the right demeanor, expression, and body language for a confrontational, mentally ill, homeless man who has suffered some form of psychotic disorder due to heavy drug use in the past. Noga is stunning in his portrayal, especially in the truthful but painful scene in which Frog questions why Shelley wasn't able to help him like Emma was in his desire to reclaim some sense of normalcy to his life. Both Gomez and Noga, while playing mostly one-dimensional parts, find nuance and depth in their characters.
Director Richard Powers-Hardt is adept in achieving authentic, moving performances from his cast and also having the scenes flow naturally and realistically. He also designed the very effective soup kitchen set. Stacey Walston's lighting is as truthful and accurate as the script and direction.
Grand Concourse is a play about second chances and, while it may not have all of the answers to the questions it brings up, and the ending doesn't resolve everything, it is a subtly moving and ultimately engrossing tale of faith, failure, and forgiveness. Theatre Artists Studio's production has a great cast and clear direction and the end result is especially rewarding.
Grand Concourse at Theatre Artists Studio runs through January 31st, 2016, with performances at 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org or by calling 602-765-0120.
by Heidi Schreck
Shelley: Debra Rich*
* Member, Actors' Equity Association