by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary
Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
South End, Boston
March 3 – April 1, 2017
With Ally Dawson (Emma), Thomas Derrah (Frog), Melinda Lopez (Shelley), Alejandro Simoes (Oscar)
Shelley (Melinda Lopez) is a nun who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx (which is where the area called the Grand Concourse is located). A college-age woman, Emma (Ally Dawson), comes to volunteer and, atypical for such volunteers at this soup kitchen, stays on to help out. Her relationship with Shelley goes up and down and through a series of cycles. Oscar (Alejandro Simoes), a young and attractive staff person, figures into Shelley’s adventures, and Frog (Thomas Derrah), a regular guest at the soup kitchen, provides material for Emma’s ambitious innovations. Shelley, who is experiencing a crisis of belief in God, perseveres nonetheless, and Emma’s commitment to the soup kitchen appears to provide support during a trying time, but the story, and the issues of faith raised by its ups and downs, get significantly more complicated.
This quite serious and, in many ways, tragic play offers quite a few laughs despite its weighty undertones. Playwright Heidi Schreck has offered a form of dialogue here that, given the right production and forceful actors as is the case here, provides a lot of very effective humor. The writing, itself, is not intended as humor writing, but somehow the precision of its text and its capacity to inspire the dry wit of good actors makes for a lot of laughs. That, indeed, is quite an accomplishment, given that the setting is one of extreme distress and the central character is in a crisis of faith.
The play’s plot is quite effective overall and offers the sort of complications that make for interesting relationships between the characters.
The ending of the play, however, falls somewhat off the scale of its dominant existentially wry tone. Ultimately, the playwright chooses an existential ending without any wryness whatsoever, a curious but jarring choice. Whereas the prevailing theme of the play for most of its tenure is faith challenged, the playwright’s choice at the close is to dramatically underline that challenge, which does not sit as well with the dramatic trajectory of the play as a somewhat more nuanced resolution might.
The acting and direction for this by and large very well written play are extremely good.
Melinda Lopez, herself a playwright and an actor who appears frequently on Boston stages (she appeared in her own one woman play Mala at ArtsEmerson recently), gives a heart-rending and vivid account of Shelley. Watching her sit before the microwave in the soup kitchen while she times her prayers to ensure that she prays enough is at once hilarious and pathetic. Lopez, who bring enormous dignity, as well as anomie, to the role conveys beautifully the sense of a religious person who exposes her mind and heart honestly and critically. With stately gravitas, Lopez provides a wonderful anchor for this great ensemble cast.
Ally Dawson does a quite good job of bringing Emma to the fore, given that the role is so complicated and full of twists and turns. Her approach is fairly straightforward and allows the script to speak for itself, which, in a way, makes the role even more bizarre than it might be. If her acting were not so unadorned in this role one might not be inclined to believe the sorts of things the narrative wants us to. So what might seem to some extent underplaying here is actually a very good choice for which Dawson is to be commended. Clearly, experienced director Bridge Kathleen O’Leary has sent Dawson in the right direction.
Alejandro Simoes’ Oscar is very funny and charming and manages to squeeze all kinds of humor and pizzazz out of lines that might be much less effective in other hands. He is also poignant and vulnerable in the right spots, expressing sincere commitment to his girlfriend while getting swept up in other emotional currents that flow his way.
Thomas Derrah, a long-time member of the acting company at the American Repertory Theater and now frequently seen in many other companies on Boston stages, is absolutely hilarious as Frog, one of the soup-kitchen regulars. I have seen Derrah’s wonderful work in many productions over the years and have never seen him quite as loose and funny as this. He does an out-of-this-world job recreating the various dimensions of the role of this schlubby but captivating Jewish schizophrenic and does it with amazing compassion and technique. It’s a fabulous performance.
The soup kitchen set by Jenna McFarland Lord is nicely conceived and the sound design by Lee Schuna is effective and non-obtrusive. The costumes, in particular the great get-ups for Frog, by Chelsea Kerl, are very well done.