When asked to compare where he’s from to his new Uptown existence, Iranian immigrant Razi says that his homeland feels like another universe. The Mexican immigrant he’s talking to quickly relates; after all, he has to take two buses from Humboldt Park to get to his construction job every day. At the performance of “Through the Elevate Line” I saw, the audience laughed at this exchange without realizing the deeper truth under the words: movement is often required of those with the scarcest resources in our society. We take their troubles and sacrifices as a given, and do little to reach out and help, especially when circumstances turn sinister. Playwright Novid Parsi’s exploration of the immigrant experience, dovetailing in its plot with “A Streetcar Named Desire,” asks the audience to look closer, and recognize how ignorance traps us into inhumanity and insular thinking.
Razi (Salar Ardebili) arrives on the doorstep of his pregnant sister Soraya (Catherine Dildilian) under the cover of night, and he is rattled. He will not talk about his life as a gay man in Iran, and he cannot stand loud noises or bright light. This sensitivity puts him at odds with his brother-in-law Chuck (Joshua J. Volkers), a gregarious Southside Irishman hell-bent on flipping the couple’s current home, so that he can gain start-up cash for his business renovating and selling houses; Soraya is in the middle of her residency as a dermatologist, and years away from making a stable income, she explains repeatedly. Razi plans to stay with Chuck and Soraya until his sister gives birth, but his unwillingness to work while on a tourist visa eats at Chuck. Everything that Razi does seems lazy or opportunistic to the man, even his relationship with a family friend, wealthy lawyer Sean (Philip Winston). Tensions mount, truths are revealed, and the trio crash into a cultural conflict.
Parsi did not initially intend to weave Tennessee Williams’ plot about Blanche and Stanley into his own story, but discovered parallels between the original narrative and his characters’ struggle to define what labels one a good immigrant, or a bad one. Early on, Parsi might have built stronger tension if he spent more time fleshing out the contemporary characters he was creating, rather than repeating a previous writer’s set of tactics and choices. But in the second act, the playwright tests our sympathies for Razi in new and unexpected ways, pushing the audience to examine its own prejudices and preconceptions about what one should do in an entirely untenable situation. Likewise, Parsi develops a complicated relationship between Soraya and her brother, as they fight about what it means to be Americanized, and whether they each paid their dues in order to exist in their new, supposedly freer nation. By the time Chuck has manipulated his wife into seeing Razi through his eyes, the audience must watch in horror as the inevitable unfolds.
Director Carin Silkaitis and her actors use physical space to ratchet up the conflict between Parsi’s characters. Ardebili darts from place to place in the small home, hiding his nerves in grand pronouncements and adjustments to the lights. Volkers stomps through the room, as he feels is his right. By the time he’s pushing Razi around wearing only a towel, it seems clear that dominance is what makes Chuck feel safe. Meanwhile, Didilian and Winston occupy the counters and the edges of the kitchen and doorway, working not to bother anyone or create any new problems. In a play about mobility, that explicitly interrogates freedom of movement and freedom of choice, each performer clarifies their stability — or lack of it — with every step.
Set designer Joe Schermoly and props designer Abigail Cain create an appropriately yuppified theatrical minefield for the play. As Chuck’s renovations sand down the edges of the kitchen and bedroom cum living room, Razi tries to bring personality to the space by adding lamps and books and treasures from his homeland. Lighting designer Lindsey Lyddan embraces the magic of Razi’s lights, inviting the audience into his mindset via rainbow colors. We want to live in Razi’s imagination because it’s less violent than what Chuck is creating.
Much like Blanche DuBois before him, Razi is living by his wits, with nothing and no one to fall back on in dire circumstances. What makes “Through the Elevated Line” so exciting, and so haunting, is that Parsi does not lay the blame for his problems entirely on Razi. His family and friends are equally responsible. Soraya does not want to know what he has gone through before winding up on her doorstep. Chuck sees his experiences as little excuse. And Sean finds his truth distasteful when it comes out. What does it say about Americans that we welcome immigrants, as long as their stories are tasteful, and as long as their movements make sense to us? “Through the Elevated Line” may start with a classic plot, but develops into something much more chilling, and much more contemporary, than ever expected.
Show: “Through the Elevated Line”
Company: Silk Road Rising
Venue: Chicago Temple (77 W Washington St)
DIE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”
TEN WORD SUMMARY: A chilling immigrant story filled out with all America’s flaws.