Russian Transport

Written on March 11th, 2014

Comedy Turns Dark in Immigrant Story

The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago has a reputation for sending its best works to Broadway, so I was excited about the opportunity to visit it recently. We saw the play Russian Transport, and it didn’t disappoint.

Sometimes I find dysfunctional family dramas, especially those with a lot of yelling, too long and too much. And when I heard that the cast speaks Russian some of the time, I was afraid it might not hold my interest.Russian Transport 3

But I was transfixed. The superior acting of this cast gripped the audience and didn’t let go for the duration. They are all equally good (and we saw the understudy for the mother’s role); all of them acting in a very realistic, very natural style. They also deserve credit for learning Russian, as the show switches between Russian and accented English.

Russian Transport is the story of an immigrant family to the U.S. from, obviously, Russia. The father, Misha (Alan Wilder) is trying to make ends meet as the owner of a car service with a crew of drivers. He struggles to make payroll. The mother, Diana, (we saw understudy Loretto Rezos) is excited about her brother Boris, whom she hasn’t seen for many years, coming to visit and stay in the U.S. Her over-excitement about Boris’ arrival contrasts with the play’s conclusion – it’s one of those stories where you have the “aha” moments when you look back. Boris (Tim Hopper) appears very congenial upon his arrival from Russia, but soon we see his dark side and his cruelty becomes apparent. Giving his parents attitude is 17 year old Alex (Aaron Himelstein). Known as Sasha to the Russian arrivals, Alex goes to school, work at the Telus store and drives for his father, turning all his income over to his mother. The daughter, Mira, also has a typical American 15-year-old’s attitude. Melanie Neilan plays Mira, as well as Russian newcomers Sonya, Vera and Sveta – in fact, she plays the four different roles so well, that I heard audience members saying they didn’t realize they were all the same actor.

So if this is a family chasing the American dream, who can fault them for their ambition? Or is this just a very ugly picture of greed? The changing dynamics make this a fascinating study.

Throughout the play, you think the mother truly cares about her family – she wants the son to get ahead, so she encourages him to work three jobs. She won’t let the daughter travel to Europe for summer school, seemingly because she cares for her and wants to look after her. There is a tender moment with her husband after he is beaten up, presumably by loan sharks.

But there is a dark twist in the end, which I won’t reveal: the audience comes to the realization that the mother is a cruel puppet master, manipulating her entire family.

This strong cast gets every ounce of emotion from the characters, and pulls in the audience into their situation. The tension at the end is palpable. I felt like I was holding my breath until the actors came out for their bows and I could see that they were actually alright.

Russian Transport continues at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, until May 11. For tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org

Russian Transport
By Erika Sheffer
Directed by Yasen Peyankov
Performed by Aaron Himelstein, Tim Hopper, Melanie Neilan, Loretta Rezos, Alan Wilder.
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
February 6 to May 11, 2014
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

 

 

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