Martyna Majok, a Polish immigrant who graduated from the University of Chicago and wrote the last play at Steppenwolf Theatre, has devoted much of her writing career to plays about people who come to America from somewhere else and don’t make themselves felt. As if they belonged here.
In “Sanctuary City,” a richly poetic piece set in the first decade of the 21st century, Majok (pronounced “oak”) is a young woman living in Newark, New Jersey, who mostly takes care of herself. Both come from immigrant families living in the shadows, but Majok never states their country of origin to better universalize their situations. The characters don’t even have names, reflecting an originality that the author prefers to avoid.
All we know is that B and G took refuge in each other from the moment G climbed onto the fire escape to visit B in 2001. Both characters came here with their families for the first time; dreamers, as they are sometimes called, but a particularly challenging set of circumstances. B’s mother returned to her country, leaving him alone and without the documents he needed. G had to deal with a series of sexual partners of her mother, many of whom left scars on both mother and daughter.
For the first few minutes, B (Grant Kennedy Lewis) and G (Jocelyn Zamudio) circle each other in a series of protective scenes staged by director Steph Paul in shifting pools of light, as they and the audience struggle to understand each other. We reveal the parameters of a relationship that seems to exist on the edge of Eros, without crossing the border. Or is there? Or will it happen?
There are potential benefits to such a relationship, namely a heterosexual marriage: G is a US citizen. Not B. If B marries G, she may be one of them, but the couple will likely face a series of invasive personal questions designed to reveal whether their relationship is fake.
The real question of the first part of the game is actually how you define, let alone a potential relationship under this kind of pressure. And they really bend.
The first half of the 95 minutes at Steppenwolf was magnificent. For the first time I felt like the theater was organically staging a show that could only be done so well in the round. Both of these artists feel present and alive, and the show is well-paced enough to be deeply engrossing. This is something really important.
Then there is a change. It comes in writing; the dramatic action shifts forward in time. Explaining exactly what has changed will spoil the experience for you. Suffice it to say that there is now a third character, played by Brandon Rivera, and the already dire situation that B and G find themselves in has now become unimaginably difficult.
I must point out that at the fair I attended, there was a technical malfunction that reduced performance in the mechanism that lifted a table that was not necessary from the bottom to the top. These things happen in theatre, they are part of the live experience and I rarely mention them in reviews. But I hope Steppenwolf takes a lasting interest in this elevator and its operation, because now I see something is wrong with it. fly There were separate productions in this still new theatre, and in each case it took the actors a minute or two to regain their intensity and bring the audience back to the play.
Simultaneously, “Sanctuary City” turns into a more traditional drama. I found myself greatly missing the sparse style of the first half, which was so beautifully written and so neatly and honestly directed. But if some of that strength is lost as the conflict becomes triangular, you still feel the stress of the combination of change.
Pulling double duty here as both a mainstage show and part of the Steppenwolf series for younger audiences, “Sanctuary City” is a light-hearted work from one of the bright new stars of American playwriting (Majok won the Pulitzer Prize). magnificent play “The Price of Life”) and is sincerely performed by this cast.
Zamudio is a powerful standout, his eyes constantly changing, as are his nameless character’s confused mind and throbbing heart.
But Rivera and Lewis have harder, more reactive tasks in many ways, and both make you feel for their young characters, although Lewis takes a little more liberties when the opportunity arises in the second episode.
This play is set in the past and you find yourself realizing how far this country has come in its areas of interest: in the not-too-distant past, we watch ordinary people doing the best they can but stuck in limbo caused by political uncertainties. policy decisions or indecisions that they have no control over. As anyone who reads the news knows, these problems continue. Especially for young people.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “City of Sanctuary” (3 stars)
When: Until November 18
Where: Community Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1646 N. Halsted St.
Working time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Tickets: $20-$114 at 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org