Melanie Neilan and Tim Hopper
Melanie Neilan and Tim Hopper Credit: Michael Brosilow

At any given time and for any given reason, history can be visualized as any given thing: a pageant, a staircase, a helix, a cage match, a bomb. In Erika Sheffer’s raw, strong, disturbingly funny Russian Transport, history is a disease spreading pathogens through time and across borders.

The infection Sheffer shows us originated with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the lawless early years of the Russian Federation. Her case study is a Russian Jewish family of four, living in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. No clear time line is given, but judging by comments dropped here and there in the course of the play, parents Misha and Diana must’ve emigrated in the mid-1990s, when Yeltsin was president, the oligarchs were snatching up natural resources, gangsters had free rein, and everybody else did what they had to do just to hang on. Son Alex was a toddler then; daughter Mira had yet to be born.

Now, in the American present, they look comfortable enough. Misha runs a chauffeur service out of the family row house. A sort of good-boy hustler, Alex does light drug sales while also attending night school, holding a day job at a Verizon store, and pulling regular shifts as a driver for dad. Mira is your average whiny teen—all Forever 21 combos and zits—lobbying hard to go on a school-sponsored enrichment trip to Italy. Diana wears leopard-print tops and dyes her hair a never-seen-in-nature shade of red. She’s got an evil, wry mouth on her: When Mira remonstrates that something isn’t fair, she replies, “Your grandmother was raped by Nazis. This is fair?” When the girl is slow to respond to an order, she threatens, all too convincingly, “Go get me some stamps before I pull your fingernails out.”

Alex insults Mira every chance he gets; Misha and Diana hiss at each other any time they’re in the same room. But during the sitcom-ish opening passages of Yasen Peyankov‘s excellent Steppenwolf Theatre production, it’s easy to suppose that’s how these folks say “I love you.”

Enter a germ named Boris. He’s Diana’s younger brother, who chose not to leave Russia with the others—a handsome, affable, well-toned, English-speaking dude on the early side of middle age. Having finally made the crossing, he moves in with his Sheepshead Bay relatives for the short time it takes him to get his business affairs rolling.

Boris likes to look sharp in the same flashy-cheap manner as his sister (dark shirt, white tie, gray suit made of what appears to be pleather). He indulges his niece and nephew by giving them his full attention (along with a matryoshka doll for Mira). I almost hate to tip you off to the fact that he’s not what he seems, because Tim Hopper—cast startlingly, brilliantly against type—allows the character’s darkness to emerge with such offhanded grace that to call attention to it is tantamount to a spoiler.

Still, there’s no two ways about it: Boris isn’t what he seems. He’s a bad man, certainly, and more—the virus of history itself, created in the moment when the Soviet Union fell to pieces, cultivated in the chaos and corruption and desperation that followed. Boris possesses all the admirable efficiency of a virus too, as he probes for the weaknesses and lies that can be turned into penetration points. It’s awful to watch his pathology spread through the family. To see who’s susceptible and who turns out to have been a carrier all along. To understand how much suffering might come with a cure.

If Hopper’s Boris is a big, ugly leap away from the roles Chicago audiences are used to seeing him in, so is Mariann Mayberry’s turn as Diana. And the gamble works out similarly well for her. Mayberry was a scrappy lost soul in Steppenwolf’s Good People a year and a half ago, and a ditzy lost sister in August: Osage County a few years before that. In Russian Transport she’s neither lost nor endearingly off. She’s nothing less than the mama from hell—albeit a nuanced one, subject to some epic compulsions.

And she’s well matched in her children. Melanie Neilan brings a heartbreaking naivete to Mira, as well as to other characters she plays. Aaron Himelstein makes a great first-born as Alex, confident in his ability to handle any and all situations, until, of course, he can’t. I was puzzled, though, about his motives in some of his dealings with Boris, wondering, first, why he goes along with things that trouble him, and, second, why he doesn’t take what seemed to me to be obvious actions. These are significant questions that might be answered if we had a more vivid sense of what exactly it is that Alex sees in Boris.

Joey Wade’s set sits uncomfortably in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theater, but Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes fit Misha, Diana, Boris, Alex, and Mira extremely well, offering an invaluable map to their natures.

Alan Wilder, finally, is perfect as daddy Misha, hiding secrets in his doughy looks and amiable manner. At one point he has a conversation with Himelstein’s Alex that like to made me cry.