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Prayer and Kitchens: Cooking with Steppenwolf in Grand Concourse

Grand Concourse Steppenwolf TheatreNearly everything that happens in Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse occurs in a kitchen—not a cozy gingham-curtained sanctuary of the kind often recreated in storefront theaters, but a stainless-steel urban-industrial scullery where meals for hoards of homeless diners are prepared daily by Sister Shelley and her assistants. Joey Wade's design for this oasis offering food for the body and for the soul includes a gas stove, a microwave oven, a double-wide refrigerator, a sink with running water, wall-mounted fire extinguishers and paper-towel dispensers, 40-quart stockpots and an assortment of sharp knives. The results are a stage picture so accurate in every detail that you almost expect to see a tabby cat lingering at the back entrance.

Assembling this environment is not a task accomplished in a single trip to Williams-Sonoma. (Sharp-eyed audience members may even notice the "nuns-having-fun" calendar by Sister Shelley's desk, or the poster of the Virgin Mary admonishing her flock, "Our Mother doesn't work here, so do your own dishes.")

The stove and refrigerator are fully-functional appliances trucked in from March Equipment Company in west suburban Addison, though production manager Tom Pearl reminds us that the stove is not connected to an actual gas outlet, nor is the refrigerator plugged in, but instead is used as a cooler, "so that the food we put in it remains at an even temperature." When Oscar cooks eggs for a down-and-out inmate's breakfast, he does so on a stove burner retrofitted with an electric hot plate that also allows water to be boiled for a nice rising-steam effect.

As with all kitchens, maintenance is required. "The set may have water and garbage cans," says stage manager Laura D. Glenn, "but to get cleaned for real, everything has to go downstairs to the greenroom. Rick Haefele, our house carpenter, even had to replace the sink faucet there to make room for us to wash the big soup pots."

One foodslinging skill that can't be faked, however, is the manipulation of six-inch and eight-inch knives. In fact, an instructor from a culinary school was brought in to drill the actors in safe and efficient surgery on the vegetables prepared by Sister Shelley's staff. This is especially important when the provender encompasses eggplants, zucchini, peppers as big as footballs and text-mandated "juicing carrots" the size of baseball bats.

"Oscar has a line where he complains that his sandwich is 'always roast beef', but Victor Almanzar, the actor who plays him, is a vegetarian," Glenn chuckles, "so what's in the sandwich is really a veggie slice. Some of our perishables, like eggs and bread, we bought in bulk and froze at the start of the run, thawing them as needed, but the majority of it is fresh produce, which we have to buy every week."

What happens to it after the show? Does the day staff lunch on salads throughout the run? Proving the adage about life imitating art, Steppenwolf publicist Madeline Long assures me that none of it is wasted, "Steppenwolf is partnered with Common Pantry, Chicago's oldest continually-operating food pantry. Every week, we deliver all our fresh chopped vegetables—nearly eighty-five pounds—to them for their kitchens."

Grand Concourse runs at Steppenwolf Theatre through August 30.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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