The characters in Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse, set in a church soup kitchen, are plagued by hungers — spiritual, sexual, emotional — that food alone can't satisfy. But a hearty soup, always vegetarian because meat is too expensive, turns out to be a reasonable starting point.
With a fine ensemble directed by Beth Lopes, Theatre Horizon's regional premiere is often funny, sometimes moving, and nearly always engrossing — even if the play itself doesn't satisfactorily resolve the questions it raises.
The title, a reference to a major Bronx thoroughfare, denotes the soup kitchen's location and also suggests a certain confluence of humanity. The play's moral center is Shelley, played with low-key conviction by Samantha Rosentrater. A plainclothes nun struggling with her faith and her feelings toward her abusive, dying father, she times her intermittent prayers with a microwave.
The plot catalyst is a somewhat mysterious 19-year-old volunteer, Emma (Ariella Serur), who bursts onto the scene with apparent goodwill, encroaching neediness, and an illness that may not be quite what it seems.
Emma exemplifies the psychological insight of Frog (David Bardeen), a soup kitchen client who declares that people can be simultaneously angels and idiots. Bardeen is precise and affecting in the role of a recovering drug abuser ready to sell a bad joke one minute and flee an imaginary pursuer the next.
Emma pushes Shelley, the soup kitchen, and especially Frog, in positive directions. But she also makes an unseemly play for Oscar (a charming Randy Nuñez, also a standout). The soup kitchen's muscle and an upwardly mobile student at City College, Oscar, in Shelley's words, "brings a lot of energy to the place." But outside the warmth of the kitchen, he, too, struggles — especially in his relationship with his girlfriend, Rosa.
Emma's moodiness and unreliability, adequately conveyed by Serur, suggest borderline personality disorder, though Schreck never names the ailment. "The main thing is to have boundaries," Shelley tells Emma early on. Emma doesn't.
Schreck is interested in the limits of forgiveness, and in how — whether blunderingly or purposefully— we affect the trajectories of one another's lives. But her drama stops just short of being fully realized. She leaves us wondering why one malady might be more blameworthy than another, where to draw the line between evil and mental illness, and who gets to decide.
The production design is first-rate. Mike Inwood's artful lighting bathes Sheryl Liu's realistic soup-kitchen set in gentle pastels, silhouetting its rows of spices and condiments during scene breaks. Credit is due to Toby Pettit for sound design and Caitlin Cisek for costumes, though one could imagine a less disheveled, more fashion-conscious Emma.
Grand Concourse is the centerpiece of Theatre Horizon's Imagine No Hunger campaign, which includes a lobby photo exhibition of area soup kitchens, post-show discussions, and the promotion of volunteerism and donations on behalf of Montgomery County's hungry.