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Gritty realism permeates the immigrant experience in ‘Russian Transport’

Director ensemble member Yasen Peyankov rehearses Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago-premiere productiRussian Transport by ErikSheffer. Russian Transport runs February 6 –

Director and ensemble member Yasen Peyankov rehearses Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago-premiere production of Russian Transport by Erika Sheffer. Russian Transport runs February 6 – May 11, 2014 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted St). | PHOTO BY JOEL MOORMAN

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‘Russian Transport,’ through May 11. Steppenwolf Theater Upstairs, 1650 N. Halsted. $20-$78. (312) 335-1650;

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Updated: February 7, 2014 8:38AM

Playwright Erika Sheffer’s parents came to the United States from the western region of Ukraine in 1975, when it was still a republic of the former Soviet Union. Her family was Jewish, and the 1970s were a period when Jews, long discriminated against there, were first permitted to leave the country.

Sheffer’s grandparents, Holocaust survivors, spoke Hungarian. Her own parents spoke Russian. And while her brother was born in Ukraine, she was born in New York in 1979, growing up in Madison, a residential “sub-section” of the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that became a magnet for Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.

Sheffer’s play, “Russian Transport,” which receives its Chicago premiere this weekend at Steppenwolf Theatre, is not strictly autobiographical. But it draws deeply on her observations of immigrant life “with parents who brought everything from furniture to bedsheets with them, worked long hours and many nights, and tried to capitalize on everything.”

“I lifted certain details of their life, including the fact that the father in the play, like mine, is a limo driver,” said Sheffer. “But I also fictionalized much of the story to make things more interesting.”

As the playwright explained: “I wanted to look at what happens when you grow up under communism and then have the freedom to express yourself. I wanted to capture that sense of people who bring a lot of distrust with them, and have less time than most Americans to be polite. Sure, we’re all very busy in our lives now, but we have a lot of time to beat around the bush, too. For people like my parents, there was a struggle to survive. They grew up in a culture of deprivation. And sometimes it can be hard to empathize with them.”

“Russian Transport” homes in on a family — father, mother and fully Americanized son and daughter — who are living in Brooklyn when their Uncle Boris arrives from “the old country.” He is already involved in “mysterious business ventures” (more accurately, criminal activities), that compel the family to decide just how far they are willing to go to in their pursuit of the American dream.

Sheffer’s play seemed like a natural fit for Steppenwolf ensemble member Yasen Peyankov, who will be making his mainstage debut as director with the production.

Peyankov grew up in communist Bulgaria and graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia in 1989, making his professional debut in an Italian play, “The Art of Comedy,” on the very day the country’s government underwent an internal coup. He left for the United States in the summer of 1990. Chicago was his destination because his first wife had an uncle here, and he came as part of a tourist group.

Once here, Peyankov forged his own American dream — starting out with a job working for a caterer, and eventually co-founding the now defunct, but hugely engaging European Repertory company. He was eventually invited to join Steppenwolf, where he has given many memorable performances, and now also serves as associate professor and director of Theatre Studies in the Performing Arts Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Erika’s play is so immediate and so hilarious, with language that sounds as if you’re overhearing a conversation, and passages of Russian that get brief translations, but are so well integrated into the action, dynamics and context that translation is really unnecessary,” he said. “The family dynamics also are totally familiar to me. These people carry their culture with them: They left the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union never left THEM.”

“Of course there are two ways to reach the American dream,” said Peyankov. “You can take the path of the father in the play, who is honest, hard-working, establishes a business, builds a house and does everything possible to make his kids’ lives better. Or you can take the short cut as Boris does, trying to score big by any means, and considering those who really work for their success to be suckers.”

“Having grown up in a socialist economy I know how the thinking goes for some people,” said Peyankov. “Since the government is pretending to pay us, we pretend to work. And along the way it’s OK to steal from shops, or from the factory, because after all, we all ‘own’ them.”

For the cast of five (Tim Hopper, Mariann Mayberry, Alan Wilder, Aaron Himelstein and Melanie Neilan), “Russian Transport” also offers great roles.

“The play is filled with conflicts, with strong wants, and with a family that fights hard but also loves each other hard,” said Peyankov. “It fits my personality. And I’ve explained to the actors that it’s perfectly OK to be loud and larger than life.”


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