Shelley is a nun who operates a soup kitchen in the Bronx. She moves through the kitchen’s work triangle like nobody’s business, but when it comes to connecting with the Holy Trinity through prayer, well, her connection with Christ just isn’t flowing in the easy back-and-forth way it used to. You know when you’re using your microwave timer as a meditation tool, something’s spiritually off. Shelley, played by Wellesley’s own Melinda Lopez (she’s a Theater Studies lecturer at Wellesley College) with emotional distance and a battered spirit, is finding that prayers can’t be zapped into existence, and the microwave can’t do a thing to heat up religious fervor gone cold in this powerful play running at SpeakEasy Stage on Tremont St. in Boston through April 1.
In playwright Heidi Schreck’s 2014 work, the two-time Obie award-winner brings together four characters into Scenic Designer Jenna McFarland Lord’s controlled chaos of a cluttered but clean kitchen set that shows the wear and tear of hard, daily use. The worn linoleum, battered and stainless steel stove, sinks, and refrigerator, and mismatched chairs are all pressed into constant service for the benefit of the soup kitchen’s clients. These are men who also experience hard, daily use and who count on the kitchen’s volunteers to fuel them up for the next few hours of more of the same. Schreck’s dialogue flows easily between the play’s four characters and allows each actor to bring depth to their roles by going easy on the script directions.
“The main thing,” Shelley tells new volunteer Emma, a teenage college drop out currently at loose ends, “just have boundaries. Don’t give them money.” About those boundaries…
Emma is a new volunteer as well as a predator, guilt-tripper, and master manipulator. Played expressively by Ally Dawson with eyes that convey mischief, and slyness, and oh shit, she brings the stardust and sparkle of a young girl to the role, as well as the nuance and complications that bubble just below the surface of any 19-year old. Emma is a good worker who stands ready to peel as many potatoes as are needed, Emma waxes eloquent on the packaging of Sephora cosmetics, Emma flirts a bit, and Emma brings trouble into the soup kitchen. Big time.
In a bit of genius directing, Bridget Kathleen O’Leary makes sure the audience will go home wondering at its own reactions to Emma’s many betrayals, especially those toward the sleeping Oscar. Played by Alejandro Simoes with an easy-breezy air, Oscar is the kitchen’s uncomplicated security guard and general go-to guy, in love with his steady girl, and pretty damn clear on what’s right and what’s wrong. I left the theater wondering why I was so ready to let Emma off the hook for one of her unholy trinity of sins — sexually assaulting Oscar as he slept.
Apparently, my reasoning went along the lines that I guessed it was ok because he did end up enjoying it, after all. Besides, he took responsibility for his role in his own assault, so there’s that. Why was I so ready to ignore the fact that Oscar was approached, without his consent, while asleep? If only he had uttered the word no, I found myself thinking. It seems I was lulled into complicity by the gentleness of the assault, as well as the intensely pleasurable feelings it obviously brought Oscar. That he experienced pleasure while in his sleepy, dreamy haze, seemed to make all the difference to me. Then, with nothing more than a pretty pout, Emma had him taking full responsibility for his part in “what happened.” Seriously? He has to take full responsibility for his own vulnerability? Oscar later reveals that he and his girlfriend are suddenly fighting all the time, and he doesn’t know why. Such complications tend to crop up, post-trauma.
When in my mind I turned the assault the other way, gender-wise, I know I would have applauded as Oscar was led away in handcuffs, protesting that she had enjoyed it for Christ’s sake. So for pointing out that I’m not as far along on my thinking about sexual consent and what it really means, thanks a lot for that, Director O’Leary. I’m not sure I gave consent to that bit of attitude prodding.
Thanks to Frog, one of the kitchen’s clients — played by Thomas Derrah with jolly buffoonery while the he’s on his meds, and with terrifying confusion when he’s not — for the comic relief, as he segued out of the intensity by reminiscing about past drug trips: “I had eaten many mushrooms — purple heads.”
Sound Designer Lee Schuna also offered us a laugh with the Bon Jovi “Living on a Prayer” ringtone on Shelley’s phone, but not everyone caught the reference or even that a gag just passed them by. The volume on the ringtone may have been too low, or the snippet of song may have been too short, or the audience may have grasped too late that it was part of the performance, not a rude fellow theater-goer’s phone. Whatever it was, the attempt didn’t quite mesh seamlessly with the play.
I ended up reserving my shock and moral outrage to what shocked and outraged the rest of the audience. We collectively gasped. I heard moans of disbelief. There were sighs of despair. For the rest of the play, the actors had us all in the very palms of their hands, as the ideals of forgiveness did battle with the desires to call out evil.
For a while there, Emma was pretty close to winning the kitchen popularity contest. She came into that soup kitchen and she made Shelley feel relaxed and trusting; she made Frog feel empowered; she made Oscar feel good.
When Emma gives Shelley a warm, true, hug, Shelley can’t reciprocate in the moment. She’s been living in sort of a nun’s hell for so long, doing God’s work every day, yet feeling herself moving farther away from God every day. She can’t seem to find her way back, no matter how many times she crosses herself, no matter how hard she tries to pray herself back. As I understand it, it’s all in the asking; Shelley never prays for herself, never asks God to shepherd her back to Him.
That true hug from Emma seems to have a sort of Prince Charming effect on Shelley, an unlikely Disney princess if ever there was one. After that, Shelley relaxes a bit, and she starts to depend on Emma, sharing with her that her calling to be a nun was part religious epiphany she had as a young girl, and part teenage rebellion aimed squarely at her feminist, atheist mother.
Sounds good, until it becomes clear that we never should have forgotten what manipulators do. They bend people to their own ends, and they’re thoughtless about the impact of their actions. Emma earns forgiveness. Emma earns a salaried position. Emma earns trust. Emma throws each of those things away. In defending her actions, she tries to take her faked cancer to the abstract, saying “I feel like I have cancer — in the inside.”
“But that’s where cancer is, and you don’t have it,” says Shelley, refusing to enter into Emma’s conscious delusion of cancer as an abstraction, cancer as metaphor, cancer as an excuse, cancer as a sympathy-grab. In fact, it was rather a kindness of her not to say, “No, Emma, you ARE a cancer.”
Later, during Frog’s and Shelley’s parallel crises, Shelley ends up saying all the comforting things to Frog that someone should have been saying to her. It is at this moment that you see her vocation shining through all the weariness. We see Shelley the Nun, and she’s a damned good nun. There’s no room for her crisis at this time, in this place, but she doesn’t begrudge Frog for stealing her trauma. She steps up and changes a moment from one of potential disaster to one that is filled with grace. There’s Shelley going full-court press, all-out nun, and it’s beautiful. At that moment, we all are allowed to see her. “I’m so sorry you had to deal with this. You shouldn’t have to deal with any of this.” says Shelley to Frog, and you somehow know that Shelley isn’t huffing on the inside, “Hell, neither should I.” She is simply, and purely, present with her client. At that moment, she’s immersed in prayer and she doesn’t even realize it.
At some point, even a woman stuck on an emotional Island of Misfit Toys as the Nun Who Can’t Pray finds sweet release, in part by turning away from a tenet that has been a core part of her existence. It is perhaps the only act of Christian charity that she directs toward herself — a laying down of the burden of forgiveness.
Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by Lee Schuna; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Manager Daryl A. Laurenza.
With: Ally Dawson (Emma); Thomas Derrah (Frog); Melinda Lopez (Shelley); Alejandro Simoes (Oscar).
Remaining performances: SpeakEasy Stage, 527 Tremont St., Boston, 617-933-8600
Wed, March 22, 7:30pm
Thur, March 23, 7:30pm
Fri, March 24, 8pm
Sat, March 25, 4pm and 8pm
Sun, March 26, 3pm
Wed, March 29, 7:30pm
Thur, March 30, 2pm and 7:30
Fri, March 31, 8pm
Sat, April 1, 4pm
The theater is handicapped accessible