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Welcome to Russian Transport

by Martha Lavey

Welcome to Russian Transport by Erika Sheffer. We are very excited to welcome ensemble member Yasen Peyankov as a director on our Subscription series. You know Yasen as an actor who has been in many Steppenwolf productions: most recently, The Wheel. Yasen’s first appearance as an actor with Steppenwolf was in Time To Burn directed by ensemble member Tina Landau. Time To Burn was, coincidentally, Tina’s first production with Steppenwolf so it’s a pleasure to have Yasen’s first foray as a director on our subscription series occur in a season led off by Tina. It’s certainly not Yasen’s first outing as a director: he directed our 2008 SYA production of The Glass Menagerie and before he joined Steppenwolf, Yasen was the founding artistic director of the European Repertory. He is currently the head of the theater program at the University of Illinois/Chicago, where he directs regularly.
Yasen is an ideal director for Russian Transport because, as you may know, he came tothe United States in 1990 from Bulgaria and hastranslated several of Chekhov’s plays for the stage.His familiarity with the cultural milieu of Russian Transport—which surveys the experience of a familyof Russian immigrants in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn—is personal and deeply felt. As is the playwright’s,Erika Sheffer. Erika is candid to say that the playsprings from her own family’s experience. I hope that you will read the interview of Yasen and Erika in this program to learn more about them both.

In Russian Transport, Sheffer tells the story of a family that has established a life in the United States. The father, Misha, runs a (not very successful) car service, and his wife, Diana, works in an office. They are parents to 14-year-old Mira and 18-year-old Alex. Both children help out in the car service and Alex works in a Verizon store and is expected to contribute to the family income.
The transformative event of the play—and in the family—is the arrival of Diana’s brother, Boris, from Russia. Boris comes to establish a life in the United States, and moves in with the family. Boris sets up the business he began in Russia—which is neither legal nor benign—and, on the sly, he enlists his nephew Alex’s participation. It’s here that the central drama of the play resides.
 Our season theme, GETTING AHEAD: HOW FAR WILL YOU GO? is brilliantly explored in Russian Transport. It’s fitting that our theme should be given such relevance in the reflection of an immigrant story. Ours is a country of immigrants: if we reach far back enough in each of our families, we encounter a generation of immigrants and can witness, first-hand, what survival looks like. We have great admiration in America for “pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps” but what does that look like really? What does it mean to have nothing, to want everything, and to know that money is the ultimate measure of success? Are our personal ethics a luxury of prosperity?
 One of the most interesting aspects of Russian Transport is its exploration of the generational divide in an immigrant family. Misha, Diana and Boris, born in Russia, have one conception of America and what success looks like. Alex, though born in Russia, has spent the majority of his life in Sheepshead Bay, and Mira is American born— both children are decidedly American in their outlook.
Both parents have great ambition for their children but are distinct in their conception of what that means. Diana is ferocious in her desire to succeed financially. She sees her husband failing in his business and vests her ambition in her children’s success. It is easy to see her unsentimental and demanding behavior towards her children as shockingly brutal, but she feels the weight of her household and sees herself as a realist—the one on whom the viability of the family depends. She depends on Alex to bring in family income and regards Mira’s desire to study abroad as a luxury that the family cannot afford. Too, she feels a need to curtail Mira’s desire for adventure in the broader world out of protectiveness for Mira’s well-being.
When Boris enters the family, he brings the history of Misha and Diana into their home. Their shared history in Russia, from which Misha has made a definitive break, is exposed to their children. I think that the great heart of the play is the moral and ethical dilemma that the children in the play must confront. Alex sees the image of two men: his father, Misha; and his uncle, Boris. Misha’s business is failing but lawful. Boris’s is successful but illegitimate and exploitative. Alex is involved in both. Which course will he choose? Which course makes a man? And Mira: she wants to break from her mother’s restrictive hold on her. She wants a wider world and Boris seems to approve of her desire to travel and is alert to her sexual awakening. But who has her best interests at heart? Does either her mother or uncle have any understanding of her real need or desire?
The great dividing line for Diana is family. She accepts Boris’s involvement with an illegal business because it’s profitable. That he is exploiting young women who are the same age as her daughter is irrelevant. Her ethics apply strictly to her family circle—anyone outside of that is fair game. Inside of the play lies the question: is it possible to maintain one set of ethics inside of the family and act in the world with a different set of ethics? Can we live in two worlds at once? Can family be a sanctuary against the world? Or is that membrane inevitably permeable?
A further pleasure in the play—and an elaboration of the themes of family and outsiders, and of the generational divide—is Sheffer’s movement in language between Russian and English. When the characters break into Russian, we are made aware of the language and interiority of the family circle, and of the differing communication between generations. As an English-speaking audience, we find ourselves slightly outside of the family’s intimacy—we understand but we aren’t part of it. It’s a deft move by the playwright—we experience, for a moment, the liminal condition of the immigrant.
Russian Transport is a funny, robust, and complex vision of the American immigrant experience. We deeply prize success in this country and our measure of success is so often financial gain. Each generation is expected to better the success of their parents. What happens to our values when we measure success by making money? I think that by making the ethnicity of the family in Russian Transport so specific, Erika Sheffer has written a universal story because she is grounded in experience and truth. By taking a deep dive into her own experience and generously presenting the immigrant family in both its incredible fortitude and sometimes cramped provincialism, she immerses us in the complicated dualities that are so central to our American identity. How far will we go to succeed? (How far must we go?)

I look forward to our conversations about the play and of the presiding question: Getting Ahead: How Far Will You Go?
Steppenwolf Artistic Director
Martha Lavey