You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you need a microwave timer, counting down the seconds until the final beep, to prompt heartfelt prayers you can’t seem to summon any other way.
But it’s come to that for Shelley, the middle-aged nun presiding over a Bronx soup kitchen where dozens of down-on-their-luck “guests” show up like clockwork to receive their daily bread.
This kitchen, equipped down to the smallest accessory by scenic designer David Melton in The Basement, places us squarely in the rumbling intersection of frustration, resignation and battered hopes that is “Grand Concourse,” TheatreLAB’s production of Heidi Schreck’s piercing, if somewhat meandering, off-Broadway drama.
“Sorry,” says Shelley, as the clock runs out before she can find words in her burned-out heart to offer God. “I’m stuck.”
As portrayed by Dawn Westbrook, the skilled veteran actress well known for marching onto Richmond stages once every year or two to kick butt and take names, Shelley is a rueful character we all might recognize: the harried supervisor; the promising big sister; the hyper-efficient mom driven by duty whose faith may now be lost, or blocked, or both.
Shelley, a Catholic nun, soldiers on day after day, filling the stomachs of down-and-outers (“It feels pointless lately, keeping these people alive with so little,” she says) and playing the role of mother hen to Oscar, the all-around custodian and “muscle” man, and Frog, a charming if emotionally troubled itinerant who passes through the kitchen as he pleases.
Soon Emma, a college dropout, arrives to volunteer in the kitchen alongside Shelley.
Emma does her best to fit in, though her impulsive nature — she quickly charms Oscar past the point of flirtation — raises Shelley’s hackles and focuses “Grand Concourse,” the latest entry into the Acts of Faith theater festival, on an age-old human quandary: How much faith can we place in those who might eventually break our hearts?
Chelsea Burke’s careful attention to the actors’ movements and sight lines, coupled with Erin Barclay’s stark, frontal lighting, help drive the running theme of hope tempered by disappointment that we experience entirely through the characters’ eyes — virtual road maps of pain, denial and delusion, especially when Emma announces to the group that she has cancer.
Katie Ellis is excellent as Emma, the callow young woman with the conflicting backstory who keeps her friends’ trust and faith twisting in the wind. As Oscar, Joshua Gutierrez expertly balances macho good cheer with sober fidelity to his character’s girlfriend, Rosa. And as Frog, for whom life on the straight and narrow may be a bridge too far, David Clark anchors the show’s poignant moments with an endearing performance that brings to mind Dennis Hopper’s deranged, doomed photojournalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, “Apocalypse Now.”
“Grand Concourse” may not deliver us to a specific and satisfying terminus (it runs nearly two hours without intermission and relies on a few too many scene changes), but the show gently guides the players, and us, to the sober counsel summed up neatly in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer” posted on the soup kitchen wall:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s a bitter truth, but one that sets Shelley free as she comes to accept that there will always be those certain souls, like feral cats, that have lived outdoors so long they can never come inside again.