News & Articles

Welcome to Grand Concourse

by Yasen Peyankov

“In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene Only then I am human Only then I am clean” – Hozier As I began this welcome letter, I felt a wave of emotions go through me. For the last twenty years, this space has been reserved for Martha Lavey, whose thoughts never fail to stimulate intellectual conversation, encouraging our viewing of a play as a bridge to exploring our humanity. I would read these letters right before curtain, marveling at her wit and passion, feeling prepared for the journey I was about to embark on. In a humble attempt to follow Martha’s singular example, I’d like to welcome you to the world of Grand Concourse. It’s a world that consummately reflects its creator, playwright Heidi Schreck. In initial conversations, I found Heidi to be very direct, charmingly open, and possessing of a great collaborative spirit—attributes that mark her clearly as Steppenwolf material. Heidi is also a very good actor, a fact that is apparent in her conflicted and complex characters that compel both actors and audiences. Heidi’s plays are funny, sharp and driven by keenly observed human behavior. Spirituality is a theme that recurs in her plays; her stories often center on characters struggling to live up to their ideals. Finally, Heidi has a knack for finding the humor at the heart of that struggle—she approaches character foibles with empathy, yes, but also with a dry wit. Grand Concourse was inspired by the memory of what Heidi called an act of “reckless generosity.” Her parents lent money to a family friend, who promptly squandered it in Las Vegas. But when that friend asked to borrow more money to get back home, they didn’t punish the friend or leverage a promise for changed behavior. Instead, her parents wired it to him without hesitation. As the young daughter in a financially struggling family, Heidi was first angered by her parents for wasting resources that could go to her approaching college, and then awed by her parents example of forgiveness. Grand Concourse interrogates the nature of this kind of generosity—generosity that ignores the risk of personal damage—and questions whether that generosity is actually beneficial to either the giver or receiver. That inquiry lives primarily in the character of Shelley, a nun who takes a nononsense approach to her work running a soup kitchen on Grand Concourse in the Bronx. After fifteen years of faith and service, Shelley is questioning the efficacy of what she has chosen to do with her life. The very purpose of Shelley’s vocation is giving, but Shelley wonders if she has anything left to give. I think it is this theme of service that first drew Martha to the play. Martha believes deeply in the value of public service and appreciates the unsentimental approach that Grand Concourse takes to investigating its costs and benefits. When Martha asked me to direct the final slot of the season, she suggested I consider Grand Concourse. “I think it is a great play, but of course you can choose something else you feel passionate about, just please nothing Slavic,” she joked. I read it in one sitting and I was sold. It was indeed a great play for Steppenwolf. I was attracted to the fragility of its four characters and the complexity of their approach to life. They are all good, purpose-driven people, but they are misguided, led astray by their ambitions and their desires. When faced with these challenging contradictions, they take comfort in the lies they have invented for themselves and others—just like my favorite “Slavic” characters from Chekhov. Oscar—one of those flawed characters—is a jocular security guard working his way through community college. Though he is on hand primarily to police high school vandals and rein in unruly patrons, he dreams of securing a better job and building a family with his girlfriend. But, like so many of us, his actions frequently subvert those intentions. We see another kind of fragility in Frog, a former intellectual now living on the streets, who has made himself very comfortably at home in the soup kitchen. Frog presents himself as a radical bohemian, a man who has consciously sacrificed conventional living in pursuit of authentic experience. But in other moments, we see that mask of bravado slip and we glimpse a personal struggle indicating that, perhaps his lifestyle is not entirely voluntary. Shelley, Oscar and Frog struggle with their circumstances, but rarely make any kind of tangible progress. They might continue in this limbo if not for the arrival of Emma, a college dropout who comes to the soup kitchen looking to make a positive difference. At first, we seem to be witnessing a familiar story: a young person full of innocent energy whose naïve enthusiasm generates a spark of new life for people deadened by routine. But as the relationships in the play develop, something much more challenging emerges. We carry the belief that selflessness is a virtue. And yet, when you give without regard to personal risk, you leave yourself vulnerable and are bound to be hurt. Therefore the partner to reckless generosity must be forgiveness: the conscious choice to release the resentment one holds towards the person who has wronged you. Popular culture is taken with the notion that forgiveness is how we transcend the harm done to us. But is that actually the case? As these four characters collide, Grand Concourse asks if forgiveness is the only path to healing, or are there times when it stands in the way of our moving on? Thank you for being here tonight, I hope you enjoy our play. And Martha, I can’t wait for the day you read these words just before the lights dim. This one is for you.