Oh, what a complex, free-thinking and victimized soul is he, and the others who might dare to express themselves in a totalitarian state.
Apologies for this reworked quote courtesy of Shakespeare. But watching Steppenwolf Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “Describe the Night,” playwright Rajiv Joseph’s decades-spanning tale inspired by the life of Isaac Babel — the author and war correspondent widely acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry” — it was impossible not to think about what life is like in a country where exercising the right of free speech in any form is more than perilous.
Born in 1894 in a rough district of Odessa, Babel was a free spirit renowned for his books “Red Cavalry” and “Odessa Stories,” and he was eventually targeted by Lavrentiy Beria, the notorious head of the Soviet Union’s NKVD (predecessor of the KGB). Arrested in 1939 on false charges of terrorism and espionage, Babel was executed by a firing squad in 1940.
Joseph’s play, which unfolds in 1920, 1937, 1940, 1989 and 2010, is by no means a documentary. Part history, part imagination, and awash in clever verbal interplay, it captures Babel’s spirit and follows certain aspects of his life and times — from his romantic attachments to his tense interaction with Soviet intelligence. And it traces his legacy by means of what are a number of imagined events during and after his lifetime, including a plane crash in Poland from which Babel’s intensely personal diary, with its distinctive red cover, is somehow saved and passed on to a contemporary journalist.
While it is not an easy play to follow, over the course of its nearly three-hour running time, the play vividly suggests the tension between those who celebrate freedom of thought and those who are tied to oppressive ideology. And it suggests the courage it takes to defy that oppression, whether through art or actual escape. A program insert outlining the various dates and locations of the play’s many scenes would be helpful, but the cast of seven — deftly directed by Austin Pendleton, who, like Joseph, is a Steppenwolf ensemble member — holds your attention in its vivid portrayals of emotionally fierce characters who must make dramatic life choices. (At one point, several of them even engage in a zany scene during which they lap up a soup made with leeches.)
Now, to those actors.
James Vincent Meredith expertly captures the remarkably fearless Babel. And the fact that a Black actor is portraying a White writer quickly becomes irrelevant. (However, as controversial as this thought might be, I doubt a White actor will ever be cast in the role of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin or any other great Black writer.)
Yasen Peyankov (who was born in Bulgaria and came to the U.S. in 1990 as the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolution) clearly has a strong sense of the world in which these characters lived, and he brings the ideal tone (and accent) to the role of Nikolai, a captain in the Russian Red Cavalry who later works as an intelligence officer. And then there is Glenn Davis as Vova (hinting at the name Vladimir), who captures the self-doubt of a man who, much like Putin, worked as an intelligence officer but, in time, becomes the man known as Putin, president of Russia.
The women in this production are superb, as well, with Sally Murphy as Yevgenia (Babel’s wife who, feeling betrayed by the writer, emigrates to Paris); Caroline Neff as Mariya (the journalist who decades after Babel’s death unexpectedly becomes the recipient of the writer’s diary by way of a young Polish car rental salesman played by Jack Cain); and Charence Higgins as Urzula, the young woman briefly pursued by Vova, and who wants desperately to flee to the West.
Collette Pollard’s set is minimalist but effective and earns great applause (as well as knowing laughter) when a file draw packed with Soviet “security intelligence” is opened. (I will not divulge its secret here). Also part of her set is a steely cabinet that rises from below ground, suggests a prison cell in some ways and becomes a fiery furnace in which Babel’s writings are set on fire.
Joseph’s play received its world premiere at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 2017, and now, five years later, it in many ways chillingly echoes some of the events that have been unfolding throughout the world since then. And while the distant past becomes prologue in many ways, an eerily prescient quality in the work maps the road from the Russian Revolution era through the Stalinist years and on to the Putin regime, while also suggesting the fierce contradictions in current day democracies. And it can only be hoped that at some moment in time it might be possible to put this play on a stage in Kyiv, and perhaps even in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
One final note: Although physically beautiful, the acoustics in Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater — with its spacious oval-shaped seating configuration — leave a great deal to be desired, especially in a play as complicated and verbally dense as this one. The excellent actors in the production clearly projected to the extent possible, but when they were facing the other side of the audience their voices often became muffled, and crucial bits of dialogue were lost. This has been a problem in previous productions staged in the room, too, and a fix of some sort is definitely needed.
“Describe the Night” runs through April 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. For tickets, visit steppenwolf.org or call (312) 335-1650.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic