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Family chases American Dream, at a cost, in ‘Russian Transport’

Dian(Mariann Mayberry) is shrewish mother Russian-Jewish family Brooklyn “Russian Transport.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW

Diana (Mariann Mayberry) is the shrewish mother in a Russian-Jewish family in Brooklyn in “Russian Transport.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW

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Highly Recommended

When: Through May 11

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets : $20-$78

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

Updated: February 17, 2014 9:35AM

As countless generations of immigrants have come to understand, the streets of this country are not paved with gold, but with the blood, sweat, tears and determination of those who plug away at several low-wage jobs or struggle to keep a small family business alive, and who are willing to sacrifice all in the name of giving their children a better life.

Of course there are those who want more, and they want it now. And the temptation to engage in “geschaft” (a Yiddish term for business, often tinged with a hint of illegal dealings) can also be part of the picture. It is this temptation, manifested in extreme form, that drives Erika Sheffer’s fierce and fevered play “Russian Transport,” now receiving a scorchingly acted production at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Sheffer’s play operates on many levels as it exposes the pain and the itch that comes with the pursuit of the ever-elusive American Dream. But its specificity is crucial, with Sheffer homing in on a Russian-Jewish family that has settled in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

Misha (Alan Wilder) is a decent man who runs a limo service he is struggling mightily to keep afloat. He has managed to scrape by and support his emasculating wife, Diana (Mariann Mayberry), and their teenage kids: 17-year-old Alex (Aaron Himelstein), an infant when he was brought to this country, and his sister, Mira (Melanie Neilan), 14, born in the United States.

Shrewish, controlling and starved for a grander existence, Diana has the instincts of a wild animal. And as the play opens she is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her adored younger brother, Boris (Tim Hopper), who remained in Russia and used his macho allure and manipulative, amoral instincts to engage in mob-style activities. His business, conducted with an “old country” pal now in New Jersey, is human trafficking: the delivery of pretty young Russian girls, also hungry for the American dream, who are promised modeling jobs but are trapped into prostitution.

Boris quickly and perniciously insinuates himself into the lives of his nephew and niece. He offers Alex — a bright, streetwise kid who juggles school and part-time jobs with the sale of drugs that helps buttress the household budget — a chance to earn more money simply by picking up his “cargo” at the airport. He trades “secrets” with the blossoming Mira, a serious student hoping to to study in Italy for the summer. And his poisonous effect very nearly destroys the family.

Under the pitch-perfect direction of Yasen Peyankov, the actors are electrifying. (They also do a superb job with their accents and bits of Russian dialogue, although overall audibility is spotty.)

With her hair dyed burnt red, Mayberry (so brilliant in “Good People”) gives another fearless performance revealing a special connection to the working-class soul. As the beaten-down man who retains his dignity, Wilder has never been better. And Hopper gives his most blistering performance ever, tapping into Boris’ icily perverted ways. Himelstein is perfection as the adolescent who knows too much for his own good and is torn in every direction. And Neilan, wonderful as the gawky girl trying to break free, is so skilled that when she plays the first of three trafficked girls I mistook her for a different actress.

Joey Wade’s multi-level “surround” set expertly captures the play’s interior and exterior worlds, with Ana Kuzmanic’s off-the-rack costumes ideal from leopard-patterned blouse to white satin tie.

As for Sheffer’s sad, angry, passionate drama, it is a fine addition to the theater of the American family in extremis.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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