Monday, May 9, 2016

Grand Concourse—Artists Repertory Theatre—SW Portland

Life’s Highways & Byways
This drama is by Heidi Schreck and is directed by JoAnn Johnson and is playing at their space, SW Alder St. & 10
th Ave., through June 5th.  For more information, go to their site at www.artistsrep.org or call 503-241-1278.
“If Life is a bowl of cherries, then why did I end up with all the pits?!”
  So, what does one do about it?  If you take a line from Frog’s Joke Book, it would be--Stop eating cherries!  For people that dine and work in a soup kitchen in the Bronx (or Anywhere, U.S.A., for that matter), this may be the last stop on Life’s journey.  Many of the diners are homeless, destitute, on drugs, mentally and/or physically ill, etc.  But what of the people that work in these establishments…are they simply do-gooders that feel they have a mission to help those on poverty row, as Pope Francis has suggested, or are they, too, simply running away from something that they fear to face in the “real” world?
Such is the dilemma of Shelley (Ayanna Berkshire), a nun (sans habit), who manages a soup kitchen in the Bronx on the Grand Concourse, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States.
  She does her best to stretch the meager potatoes, carrots and spices into an appealing stew for the hordes of homeless that frequent her kitchen.  She does her best to help those just get through the day.  But she does seem to have a problem with praying, as she can’t seem to put into words what is on her soul.  Or, is what is residing in her soul, something she’s afraid to face?
Finally, out of the blue, a young girl, Emma (Jahnavi Alyssa), walks into her eatery and volunteers to assist.
  She seems eager to help, although unskilled in this kind of business, but Shelley takes her under her wing and shows her the ropes.  Also, working in the building, is the all around handyman, Oscar (John San Nicolas), who is glib, quick on his feet and a bit of a flirt.  Of course, right away, Emma and Oscar “notice” each other.  And the last individual in this motley crew is the already mentioned, Frog (Allen Nause, former A/D of Artists Rep.), who is a bit of a riddle.
Frog on the surface seems to be the wisest of the bunch but then the question would be, if that is the case, what is he doing here…dirty, homeless and selling Joke Books that he wrote which make no sense?
  What is it that haunts him that stops him from realizing his full potential?  In fact, that may be the main question that plagues all of them.  What demons have followed them that have driven them into this last crossroad of Life? 
On the surface, they all seem content.
  Oscar seems happy with his relationship with his girlfriend, Rosa, but has dreams of going to college and better his lot in life.  Shelley is good at what she does but there is the lack of communication with God in the field she felt drawn to.  Emma seems like a God-send to this place and yet she has secrets that might erode her if she doesn’t deal with them.  And Frog, a man of mystery, who is a bit of a sage, writes bad jokes, seems to read in people what they need, has potential, and yet…?  In an odd way no one is exactly as they appear and yet they all seem the need to gravitate toward one another in order to grow.
I really can’t tell you more, as there are discoveries an audience must make.
  But don’t look at his story on just a surface level.  We all have stories and secrets, some yet to be investigated and, as we encounter other people, we evolve and grow, hopefully, toward who we were meant to be.  Life is in a state of flux but, at the core, there is still the same person we were as a child.  It is not us that is changing, not really…it is the world around us, and how we deal with that, is whether we will fulfill our true potential.
Johnson is always worth watching, as an actor and director.
  As you see the actors blossoming onstage, know that there is an accomplished, actor’s director behind the scenes that is nudging them in creative directions.  And she has a marvelous cast to work with.  Berkshire is so natural one feels it would not be rude to walk up and ask her for a bowl of soup.  She has a natural gift for the stage and it shows.  Nicolas is also a pro and presents us with a character that could have been static but his expressions and gestures and inflections suggest something deeper.  Alyssa is a real find in a very complicated role.  At times you want to slap her and at other times, hug her.  Her character is an enigma and yet must be played as if she is on a recognizable path in life.  Very well enacted.  And Nause is always a gem, both onstage and as a director.  His Frog is one, complicated dude and in the hands of this gentleman, it is a classic portrayal.  Bravo to all these marvelous talents who choose to share their gifts with us!
I recommend this play.
  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.