‘There’s kind of an intense feeling of stuckness.’
There’s a lot to love about Grand Concourse, Heidi Schreck’s heart-wrenching hit that is set to make its New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage March 3.
Shelley is a nun at a crossroads who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx. When Emma, a troubled teenager, begins volunteering, Shelley is forced to confront the limits of her faith and compassion.
It’s been a few years since Grand Concourse premiered, and now it’s kind of bouncing around the country. How does that feel?
It’s been thrilling, actually. Because I spent so much time with these characters, I have a great love for them, so just to see different people bring their sensibility to it has been really gratifying.
Shelley is a very interesting character. Would you say that she is questioning her faith, or is it that she’s beginning to entertain different perspectives?
I think maybe a little bit of both. At the beginning of the play, she doesn’t know what’s happening; there’s kind of an intense feeling of stuckness, and she doesn’t quite know where it’s coming from.
And then comes along Emma, who at first seems to buoy Shelley, but she ultimately becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back for Shelley in a lot of ways.
I agree with you, it’s the straw that breaks Shelly’s back; but also, I also feel like it kind of wakes Shelley up. My feeling always is that Emma actually does a great deal of good for Shelley even in the awfulness of some of the things she does.
Do you see Emma’s likeability as a hurdle for some audiences?
I mean, yes. [laughs] It’s been really interesting. The talkbacks for this show have been so fascinating and really exciting. People have very different reactions to Emma. It’s weird for me, maybe because I wrote her, but I have a lot more empathy and sympathy for Emma than I think some people do, and maybe that’s partially because I was kind of writing an extreme version of myself at 19. Obviously, I wasn’t that damaging, but I think I struggled with some of the things she struggles with including depression, inconstancy, and inability to keep commitments or uphold responsibilities. Which, I think, a lot of people do when they’re 19. It can be tricky, and it’s a very tricky role to play.
You know, I wrote down “Angels and Assholes” as a possible title for this article.
[laughs] I love that. Yeah, I like that a lot. When I was writing the play, I was at a wedding with my husband’s family, and one of his relatives was talking about a deceased relative and described him that way. I just loved the expression so much.
Frog, I guess we’ll say, is one of the patrons of the soup kitchen. I think it’s interesting that you wrote that he became a vegetarian to anger his parents. It’s the same kind of reason that Shelley became a nun. What are you trying to do there?
You caught me! I mean, some of the stuff is so unconscious, but I do think that, certainly in Shelley’s case, there’s this idea that she made this choice to be a nun at a very young age. You make a kind of reactionary choice and then find yourself living it out for decades before you start to examine where the choice really came from.
Both Emma and Frog are grappling with some kind of mental illness. Did you set out to consider mental illness in this play?
I think it was always present with me because I have people [with mental illness] in my life and I’ve worked in environments where people are struggling [with it]. And, let me be clear, there are plenty of forms where people are coping and don’t damage things and don’t hurt people. I, personally, was struggling with the question of “what do you do in a situation where you’re caring for someone who has a mental illness and they hurt you?” Like someone who loves an alcoholic. How one is supposed to process that or deal with it knowing that the person may not be totally in charge of their faculties. I find [it] a really compelling question.
And was that question the main impetus behind Grand Concourse, or did you kind of find your way there?
I think I found my way there. I didn’t have some big idea when I started the play. I didn’t know this when I was writing, but I do think, in retrospect, the bigger thing I was grappling with was this idea of forgiveness and what it actually means. I got to this point in my life where I realized that because of the way I’ve been raised and what I’ve been taught, forgiveness was my default setting. I got to a point where I didn’t understand what that actually meant, and a lot of the time I was just letting people walk all over me, or I was saying I forgave people but, really, I was just holding onto a great deal of rage. So, just realizing that I really had no fucking clue what it meant to actually forgive someone, so I think I was interested in that. And by the time I was done writing the play, the liberation that comes from Shelley realizing that she, for this moment, is not going to forgive, she doesn’t have to forgive, and whether or not she doesn’t have to, she just simply isn’t. It’s a really liberating moment and maybe would be the thing that would allow you to eventually find authentic forgiveness, whatever that means.
GRAND CONCOURSE. THROUGH 4.1 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.