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Essay

Tim Sanford on Grand Concourse

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The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt. 
The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich

You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you had lost something. 
Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw

Grand Concourse is probably the most recognizable place name in the Bronx (next to Yankee Stadium). Built at the turn of the century at the height of the City Beautiful movement, taking fifteen years to construct, its Alsatian architect modelled it on the Champs-Élysée, only on an even grander scale. Yet the Bronx itself, despite gradual improvement, still stands in some people’s minds as a symbol of urban blight. Heidi Schreck’s play, Grand Concourse, evokes both of these associations. Set in a soup kitchen in a church managed by a progressive, secularly-dressed nun, the play depicts the world where idealism and reality meet head on. With only four characters, the play represents a remarkably broad spectrum of players in this struggle. The nun, Shelley, seems totally grounded and matter-of-fact but her relationship to her own faith seems faintly unsettled. Her other employee is a cheerful, somewhat rambunctious working-class Latino man. And the one “customer” we meet is a garrulous, off-kilter homeless man with a fascinating back story.  Into this mix steps a young volunteer, who seems by turns zealot, trouble-maker, with a hint of Eve Harrington. Each of these people is exactingly, humanely drawn, and their stories are compelling and surprising.  Somehow as the story unfolds, this world feels like a microcosm of America. The collision of idealism with reality creates a moral muddiness. Charity is not straightforward. The underlying motives of the charitable transaction are as opaque as any other human interaction. In the course of the play, Shelley discovers this truth applies even to herself. Self-knowledge becomes as imperative as selflessness.

The word “concourse” does not just suggest intersection; it also suggests passage. These characters all come together in search of something, but each also inevitably passes through on a journey to somewhere else. And Shelley’s journey is implicitly rooted in her sense of spirituality. In most plays I can think of about religious faith—including Major Barbara, quoted above, or A Man for All Seasons, or from the Playwrights Horizons canon, Saved, 100 Saints You Should Know, or The Busy World Is Hushed—the satisfaction of the seeker’s quest seems endemically tied to an event of disillusionment. And the crisis of disillusionment that strikes Shelley seems particularly shattering. But we never feel Shelley is waylaid from her journey. What she experiences feels tied to what the great Christian existentialist Theologian Paul Tillich wrestled with in The Courage To Be, also quoted above. True faith seems to need to accommodate doubt, perhaps even to spring from doubt. And it needs to accommodate our humanity. It’s hard to account for the expansiveness we feel at the end of Grand Concourse. A description would not only give it away; it would also be inadequate.

Adam Greenfield is exactly right in his article within when he says the actor Heidi Schreck is the same person as the writer Heidi Schreck. I met Heidi the writer about the same time Heidi the actor performed in Circle Mirror Transformation for us. In the years since, Heidi the writer’s production opportunities have significantly increased, but Heidi the actor has worked virtually non-stop, to the point of interfering with playwright Heidi’s schedule.  As a champion of playwrights, I’ve found myself teasing her a little: “Heidi, you’re a great writer. You owe it to yourself to be just a writer the next time you’re produced.” I am thrilled to be the one to give her that opportunity by producing this amazing play.

Tim Sanford
Artistic Director

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