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'Russian Transport' begs the question of what people will do to get ahead

Aaron Himelstein (Alex), Mariann Mayberry (Diana) and Melanie Neilan (Mira)
Aaron Himelstein (Alex), Mariann Mayberry (Diana) and Melanie Neilan (Mira)
Michael Brosilow

'Russian Transport'


Hopefully, when audiences see "Russian Transport" by Erika Sheffer at Steppenwolf ‘s Upstairs Theatre, running now through May 11, they will have time for the post show discussion that is sometimes offered or will contemplate its themes and discuss them with a fellow attendee.

The interplay of a foreign language, swear words, ethics and family dynamics can leave one impression but further contemplation may lead to other impressions.

Unsettling and occasionally funny when lines uttered in a strong accent can be understood, the play paints a harsh picture of contrasting desires and morality among Russian immigrants and first generation offspring.

Although not autobiographical, the family in “Russian Transport” struggles to get ahead in their adopted country, like Sheffer’s parents who emigrated to Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay from Ukraine.

That they have more freedom to live and work then they had under communism, begs the question of what people are willing to do and how far they are willing to go to achieve their dreams. Indeed, the Steppenwolf 2013-2014 season’s theme is “Getting ahead: How far will you go?”

Set in current times after the family had been in the States for more than a decade, the play starts with a seemingly innocent though rough interaction among Diana, the sharp-tongued mother played by Mariann Mayberry, her earnest husband Misha (Alan Wilder) who operates a car service, son Alex (Aaron Himelstein), an older teenager who works days, attends night school and drives for his father, and daughter Mira (Melanie Neilan), a younger, highly Americanized teenager.

Thrown into the mix is Diana’s brother, Boris (Tim Hopper), who hadn’t left Russia until now. He plans to work an illegal, immoral human trafficking business. How the family reacts to Boris develops the second act.

What makes it all work is the casting.

Mayberry’s bark is more potent than her bite and it’s clear she cares more about family than ethics. As owner of an honest but struggling business, Wilder becomes the foil with the right strength to oppose illegitimate carrying-on. Hopper is sleek as the amoral relative who imported an out-to-get-mine attitude.

Himelstein is so natural in his role as family financial helper with wavering ethical dilemmas that audiences never feel as if he is acting a part. Neilan is the perfect teenaged girl, rebellious against being told what to do and concerned with typical problems of hormones and zits. She also beautifully sheds her Americanized role when she is Sonya, Vera and Sveta, three young Russian girls eager to see New York and become models but were transported for other purposes.

Even with a few light moments in the first act, audiences should not come thinking they will see a comedy. Directed by Yasen Peyankov with scenic design by Joey Wade, the Steppenwolf production is a conversation starter.

Details: “Russian Transport” is at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre now through May 11 at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL. For more information or tickets visit Steppenwolf or call 312-335-1650.

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