“This meal is just to get people through the day,” says Shelley (Mariann Mayberry) of the no-frills vegetable stew she puts together every morning at a Bronx soup kitchen. Shelley’s not having such an easy time getting through the day herself of late. A no-nonsense nun who admits she entered the convent at least in part to spite her mother, a well-known feminist, for staying with a father who was “not the kindest man in the world.” That father is now nearing death, leaving Shelley conflicted. She’s becoming disillusioned with her mission of keeping people fed at a subsistence level, and with her faith—she’s started using the microwave timer to impel her to pray for at least a minute at a time.
But if Shelley is the most compelling character in Heidi Schreck’s play, it’s the arrival of new volunteer Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a college dropout in need of some direction in her life, that drives Grand Concourse’s action—such as it is. Reeking of needy self-pity, Emma craves approval so badly that when Shelley admonishes her for allowing Frog (Tim Hopper), a frequent patron, into the kitchen against Shelley’s direct instructions, Emma announces apropos of nothing that she has cancer. There are signs of further emotional volatility in her continuous attempts to flirt with Oscar (Victor Almanzar), the genial Dominican maintenance man, despite his protestations of an offstage girlfriend.
The best way to describe Emma’s behavior is an oxymoron: It follows a pattern of unreliability. She’ll disappear for a week or two, then slink back apologetically; eventually she has a few months of enthusiastic productivity that reenergizes the whole place, sending Frog and other of the kitchen’s clients on job interviews. Once she’s ingratiated herself to Shelley enough to earn real responsibility, just as Shelley has to go to California to deal with dad, you know it’s only moments before Emma reverts to type and disaster strikes.
Mayberry is excellent as ever as the flinty nun in a crisis of faith, and Schreck gives her some nice moments to play, like Shelley’s recollection at Emma’s prompting of the dream that she interpreted as her calling. Almanzar is an ingratiating presence, and Hopper imbues the too-expected character of lovable crackpot with dignity (Francis Guinan takes over as Frog from August 11 through the end of the run).
But Uomoleale, though she captures Emma’s manic qualities quite well, is ultimately given a rather empty role, a writer's embodiment of the limits of forgiveness. Emma and her failures seem to be here to tell us it’s better not to try.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Heidi Schreck. Directed by Yasen Peyankov. With Mariann Mayberry, Brittany Uomoleale, Victor Almanzar, Tim Hopper. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.