Chicago Theatre Review
An American Nightmare
Russian Transport – Steppenwolf Theatre
No one strives harder to achieve the upward mobility, success and financial prosperity promised by the freedoms in our Declaration of Independence than the thousands of immigrants who arrive daily. Erika Sheffer’s drama, currently having its Chicago premiere, draws a little from her own experience. Like Sheffer’s family, it depicts a Jewish Russian-born family who’ve immigrated to the United States, settling in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn and working hard for their piece of the pie. Having grown up under the Soviet Union’s restrictions and deprivation, American freedom can be overwhelming for a people unaccustomed to it. Sheffer’s play examines the effects of what happens when one’s reach exceeds his grasp.
Set alley style in Joey Wade’s rundown two-story Brooklyn home, Misha and Diana along with their two teenagers, Alex and Mira, are all scrimping and working multiple jobs to get by. Forever in debt Misha, with the help of his wife and children, runs a limo service out of his home. Alex, still in high school, not only is one of his drivers but also works part-time in a Verizon Store. 14-year-old Mira helps out after school as a dispatcher and dreams of a summer studying art in Italy.
As the play begins the family’s awaiting the arrival of Uncle Boris, Diana’s macho, mysterious younger brother who’s come to America for work. Over the days and throughout the scenes that follow, however, the real Boris is revealed to be a gun-carrying thug with a hair-trigger temper, a lust for young girls and an entrepreneur who is secretly running a white slave prostitution ring. Young Alex’s desire to make a few extra dollars that won’t have to go toward supporting his family prompts him to accept an under-the-table job from his uncle, picking up and delivering “merchandise” at the airport. Eventually he learns that he’s become Boris’ middle man, hired to deliver innocent, young Russian girls to the rich men who’ve purchased them. When Alex finally realizes what’s about to befall these unsuspecting girls who believe they’re in America to become models, the tension fully escalates.
Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov, with able assistance from Luda Lopatina Solomon as language coach, directs a cast that is uniformly excellent. Ensemble members Alan Wilder and Mariann Mayberry are strong and believable as immigrant parents Misha and Diana. Wilder’s Misha, who’s floundering under considerable debt, wants only the best for his family. That he can’t provide those American luxuries his children and his wife expect frustrates the man. His sadness permeates every scene and the audience empathizes with him. Ms. Mayberry’s acid-tongued Diana provides much of the play’s welcome humor as she hurls insults at everyone, particularly her kids. Mayberry’s blazing red hair, the only extravagance she’s been allowed, matches her volatile temper that erupts throughout the play. Mayberry’s dry sarcasm, however, comes out of nowhere and is hilarious.
Another Steppenwolf ensemble member, Tim Hopper’s Boris is a hulking, imposing presence who begins the play as a kind, understanding adult confidant welcomed by the two kids. But as events progress Hopper slyly evolves into the dangerous, intimidating man who will eventually take over his family’s lives. Making her Steppenwolf debut, Melanie Neilan is spot-on as Mira. Playing a young teenager, Ms. Neilan is completely plausible in attitude, line delivery and the way she flounces around the stage with pubescent spunkiness. What makes this actress especially impressive is her complete transformation as three of the young Russian girls Boris has brought to America. Aaron Himelstein, however, is this production’s real star. Himelstein’s every bit convincing as the 18-year-old who provides the play’s focal point. At once both a teenage boy and a young adult sweating over moral issues and responsibilities far beyond his years, one has only to look at this young man’s face as he realizes into what muck he’s stepped in order to earn some easy cash.
Erika Sheffer’s drama offers audiences something new: she provides an uncluttered look at the experiences of an immigrant family struggling to do whatever’s necessary to make the American Dream their own. That things go horribly wrong isn’t the surprise; this is after all a play and something’s got to happen. It’s the fact that Sheffer offers no solutions. There’s no happy ending and no message to treasure at the final curtain. The play, as Hamlet said, “is the thing,” and audiences are free to take from it what they will. But one thing is certain: Sheffer provides theatre goers with a lot to think about afterwards.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 6-May 11 by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by visiting their website at www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.