Russian Transport

 

steppenwolf theatre
Russian Transport

Directed by Yasen Peyankov

At Steppenwolf  Theatre, Chicago

Generational family conflicts divide Russian Jewish immigrant’s struggle to achieve the American Dream.

After surviving the struggle for subsistence in the old Soviet Union,  the immigrant Russian Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn  lead by the mean tough matriarch Diana (Mariann Mayberry), have generational difference as to the definition of the American Dream.  Diana is all about family; she sees their survival revolves around accumulation money. Her children, 18 year old Alex (Aaron Himelstein) and 14 year old Mira (Melanie Neilan) see the world through the eyes of American teens: they desire fun, fashion and the pleasures of a reachable future. Alex is a hard working guy who turns over his pay from his two jobs to the family yet he has some nefarious activities to earn some personal cash. Misha (Alan Wilder) the the patriarch who is struggling to keep the family whole with his failing limo business. He appears weak and disorganized but he is a man of integrity.

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This family utilizes the Russian mentality of screaming and arguing about matters then quickly making up. This rowdy style reflects the toughness required to survive in Russia. The adults bring that to America. Habits die hard.

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Upon the arrival of Boris (Tim Hopper), Diana’s 40something brother, the family dynamic changes. The sexy, confident and scary Boris quickly bonds with Alex as he recruits him into his mysterious business venture luring the teen with easy cash.  Mira bonds with Boris as she enlists his help to convince Diana to let her spend the summer studying art in Florence. Mira can’t understand why her mother is so emotionally against her traveling to Europe.

Boris slyly emerges as the dominant force in the family dynamic causing conflict with Diana’s strong hold on the family.  Alex begins to doubt the morality and legality of his chauffeuring trips transporting young Russian woman to places in New Jersey.

I’ll not reveal more so as not to spoil the action. Erika Sheffer, herself the child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, has developed two generations of characters each striving to both survive and get their share of the American Dream. She addresses the decision the family must make: How far are they willing to go to come out on top – to survive? Is money the ultimate measurement of success? Does family survival trump all ethics? Does the family needs justify doing evil acts toward others as long as it doesn’t hard the family? Do the scars from having nothing justify the amoral accumulation of wealth?

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We see Diana and Boris’ Russian-based morality versus Alex and Mira’s contemporary American ethics. Misha, having compromised his values in Russia, now feels the guilt of such actions. In America, he  is bent on living with high ethics.  The central conflict here is the dynamic that finds most of the characters and the verge of doing the right thing while they struggle with their conflicting traditions and values. Old Russian survival habits versus the open opportunities in America with generational differences fueling  the conflict in Russian Transport.

The Russian accents are authentic yet we understand every word. The generous use of actual Russian dialogue is so effectively woven into the story that we understand what is going on  despite our not knowing Russian. That is a combination of the skills of playwright Sheffer with the staging of director Yasen Peyankov and, of course, the skills of the talented cast. Credit dialect coach Eva Breneman with yeoman work.

The uniformly outstanding cast is led by the funny sarcasm from Alan Wilder as the cynical family patriarch with the powerfully eerie work by Tim Hooper as Boris, the gangster. Mariann Mayberry is the tough mother who browbeats her children to protect them. Aaron Himelstrin is quite effective as Alex whose struggles to do the right thing while Melanie Neilan demonstrates her acting chops by playing Mira and three Russian newbies to America.

Russian Transport is a refreshingly deep drama that asks the question:  Are personal ethics a luxury of prosperity or are they the guiding light to personal integrity?  Russian Transport is a “must see ” play that puts a valid twist on the conflicts facing immigrants from totalitarian countries.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: February 15, 2014

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Russian Transport page at theatreinchicago.com

At Steppenwolf Theatre’s Upstairs space, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $20 – $78, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, matinees on Wednesdays at 2 pm, Saturdays &Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with intersession, through May 11, 2014
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