Things clip along pretty quickly in Grand Concourse, the new play at Artists Repertory Theatre, which takes place in a church soup kitchen in the Bronx and performs a bravura juggling act between comedy and psychological drama. Played out on a meticulous commercial kitchen set by Kristeen Willis Crosser (the show features lots of chopping of carrots, potatoes, and the occasional finger), it’s a four-hander that features an unlikely showdown between an activist nun (Ayanna Berkshire) and a volatile 19-year-old volunteer (Jahnavi Alyssa), with excellent support from veterans John San Nicholas as the soup kitchen jack-of-all-trades and Allen Nause as a shambling, slightly addled perpetual client. As directed by JoAnn Johnson, it’s an expertly careening race of two locomotives heading toward each other on the same track, speeding somewhere between possibility and inevitability.
And it audaciously introduces Portland audiences to the work of Heidi Schreck, a New York actor and rising playwright who grew up in the Pacific Northwest.
Grand Concourse opened Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday afternoon after chatting with Schreck on Friday afternoon. She showed up for our interview at Artists Rep trailing a rolling suitcase behind her, a woman on the move: she’d flown in the day before and was staying only through the weekend. Still, this was a homecoming of sorts, and she was upbeat, insightful, and obviously very smart.
In the lobby she saw notices for Profile Theatre’s current season of plays by Tanya Barfield, who is also a rising New York playwright, and who grew up in Portland, and is one of Schreck’s closest friends in New York. The links go back even further, to her childhood days of traveling to Ashland to perform every fall with the kids’ theater company her mother operated, The Short Shakespeareans, and seeing shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The first OSF show she saw, when she was six, was a vivid Macbeth – “which was very traumatizing,” she told Adam Greenfield in an interview for Playwrights Horizons. “It’s a horrible, thrilling play to watch as a six-year-old.” The production was directed by Pat Patton, who now lives and works in Portland, and who is married to JoAnn Johnson, director of Artists Rep’s Grand Concourse. The synchronicity delights Schreck: “It’s like a dream come true to have my life come around in a circle.”
Schreck grew up in the central Washington apple-growing town of Wenatchee, and she’s been in New York twelve years, acting, writing, doing TV as both an actor and a writer. Her journey from the apple capital to the Big Apple was circuitous. “It took me a while to get there,” she says. “I moved from such a small town.” She went to college at the University of Oregon, moved to Russia – first to Siberia, where she taught English in the small city of Tynda, then to St. Petersburg, where she worked for a while as a young journalist for the English-language newspaper St. Petersburg Today: “I guess somehow it was easier to move to Russia than to New York.” Back in the states, she immersed herself for several years in Seattle’s vibrant theater scene. Finally, with her husband, theater director Kip Fagan (he directed the premiere of Grand Concourse for Playwrights Horizons), she took the plunge and moved to New York. They weren’t getting any younger, they decided: If they were ever going to do it, they’d better just do it.
It worked out well. Schreck found work quickly, and began making connections, both in the theater and in New York’s revived film and television scene. “I started off acting in a play with Edie Falco,” she recalls. That led her to the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, which starred The Sopranos veteran Falco as a hard-working emergency room nurse who’s addicted to painkillers. Schreck wrote fourteen episodes for the long-running series. Onstage, she starred in the premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation for Playwrights Horizons in 2009 (Artists Rep staged a fine production of it, directed by Nause, in 2012); did some Shakespeare in Central Park with director Daniel Sullivan, onetime artistic director at Seattle Rep; picked up a couple of Obies for other shows, and established herself as a rising playwright.
Writing seems to spring naturally from her life. “There were so many books in our home,” she says. “I did so much reading from when I was young.” Her parents’ library was open to her, and it included a lot of books on religious questions – as she told Greenfield, her father did his dissertation on Kierkegaard, and “sitting right next to each other on my dad’s bookshelf was C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and I read both at a very early age.” The questions raised by such works work their way into the deep background of her plays, along with Dosteovesky and the other Russians, whose influence is less conscious than just part of the package: “maybe some of the obsession with good and evil,” Schreck says.
Her debut play, in 2009 (she was juggling it with her performances in Circle Mirror Transformation) was the well-received Creature, set in 1401, about a brewer’s wife who sees visions of Jesus and the Devil and strives to be a saint, even though there are complications when it comes to the temptations of the flesh. The following year’s There Are No More Big Secrets is a drawing-room drama that involves witches and spirits and a dash of Dostoevsky in a modern setting. The Consultant, from 2014, is set in a pharmaceutical advertising agency during the economic panic of 2008. Grand Concourse, which takes its title from the busy boulevard that runs through the Bronx and whose noises clatter into the play’s church basement, premiered later in 2014.
“The plays I’ve written have all been wildly different in content,” Schreck says. “I’m always fascinated with the gap between what people want to be and what they are. They’re searching to be ethical people, and don’t know how to do that.”
The setting for Grand Concourse came pretty easily. “I spent a lot of time in my childhood with my parents working in soup kitchens,” she says. “Interacting with fragile communities was part of my environment growing up.” Her parents were public school teachers who also, for a time, ran a home for homeless kids: doing good was part of the family equation, and that background finds its way into Grand Concourse and Schreck’s other plays. What, after all, does doing good mean, and how does the aspiration square with actuality? The questions, she says, are “very complicated, because the people giving help may also need help, and the people who need help don’t always know what they need.”
Grand Concourse has four characters, but the primary struggle is between Shelley (Berkshire), an older nun who runs the soup kitchen, and Emma (Alyssa), a brash 19-year-old who volunteers at the kitchen and upsets the apple cart in sometimes shocking ways. Both, Schreck says, are fictionalized versions of herself: “the most desperate version of myself at 19, and then my 40-year-old self.” And as natural as they seem now, they had to be shaken out: “I had terrible writers block a few years ago, and I did a writers’ workshop with Tanya Barfield, and she had us do a whole lot of exercises, and these two women came out of that.”
Doing television has helped Schreck as a writer, she says: “I learned lots of things about structure writing for television, because the format is so much tighter.” But when she writes a play, the characters come first, and because she’s also an actor, she tries to make sure all of her roles have meat: “I hear the characters’ voices in my ear as I’m writing.”
Still, her style has a deliberate openness that gives actors and directors a lot of freedom to find their own voices. That extends very much to how the lines are read. At a talkback after Sunday’s matinee, Alyssa commented that the Grand Concourse script includes something on the order of twenty-six punctuation marks. Yet reading the play isn’t problematical at all. “Line breaks indicate a shift in thought, and do not necessarily demand a pause,” Schreck writes in a note in the published script. “Actors should feel free to play around with the rhythms, and to make choices about punctuation.”
In the end, it’s pretty much all about choices: what do people do with their lives?
“There’s a lot of open space in the play for people to decide for themselves,” she says. “Are (the characters) acting out of pain, or malice? The line between … what is mental illness, and – how to hold people responsible for their actions. It’s a very tricky question. I’m interested in that territory. When are we acting out of free will? When are we acting out of biology? When are we acting out of mental illness?”
The questions resound in Grand Concourse, and they do it in the best way – not as philosophical arguments or calls to political action, but as the natural messy outcome of a quartet of fascinating characters who find themselves stuck together on the same stage at the same time.
- Grand Concourse continues through June 5 at Artists Rep. Ticket and schedule information here.
- Read Adam Greenfield’s insightful interview with Schreck on the occasion of Playwrights Horizons’ premiere of Grand Concourse.
- Read David Adjmi’s interview with Schreck on the occasion of the debut of Creature in 2009.
- Look for Brett Campbell’s review for ArtsWatch of Artists Rep’s Grand Concourse soon.