Young people can be so puzzling to older generations. Countless articles have asked, “What’s up with millennials, anyway?” And several recent plays at Steppenwolf Theatre, including “The Night Alive” and “Airline Highway,” zeroed in on this struggle for comprehension across the generational divide. In each of these plays, the story is propelled by the arrival of a young woman among a group of older adults.
And now, the same is true of Heidi Schreck’s drama “Grand Concourse,” directed by Yasen Peyankov. The young woman this time is Emma (Brittany Uomoleale), a 19-year-old college dropout who shows up to volunteer in a Bronx soup kitchen, soon telling her co-workers that she’s suffering from leukemia. The adults trying to figure out Emma are Shelley (Mariann Mayberry), the tough-talking nun who runs the soup kitchen with strict efficiency; Frog (played by Tim Hopper, with Francis Guinan taking over the role Aug. 11), an unemployed, mentally ill joke-teller who’s a regular at the kitchen’s free meals; and Oscar (Victor Alamanzar), the kitchen’s Latino handyman, who immediately proclaims that Emma is cute but soon adds the qualification that she seems a bit crazy.
“Grand Concourse” carries on the grand tradition of Steppenwolf productions featuring strong ensemble casts—it’s a pleasure to watch all four of these actors inhabit their roles with natural grace. There’s a delightfully dry humor in the way Mayberry delivers her lines as the bossy nun, and Uomoleale is convincing as Emma, a young women who’s clearly struggling to find a clear direction as she enters adulthood.
Emma seems to be kindhearted and smart, yet impulsive, but as the plot unfolds, she turns out to be an erratic youth prone to making bad decisions. Her presence seems to make the three older characters rethink their own lives.
But there’s also something erratic about the way “Grand Concourse” jumps from one episode to another in its second half, as Emma goes back and forth from good girl to bad girl to good girl. Sure, she’s confused, but ultimately the play itself also feels uncertain. The final confrontation between Emma and Shelley isn’t entirely believable.
In spite of this imperfect ending, Steppenwolf’s strong acting performances make “Grand Concourse” an engaging story—even if it doesn’t solve the generation gap.
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