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Review: DESCRIBE THE NIGHT at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: DESCRIBE THE NIGHT at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Chicago premiere of Rajiv Joseph's timely play about truth, lies, and what's in-between, runs through April 9, 2023

Rajiv Joseph's DESCRIBE THE NIGHT, now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is a sprawling exploration of the blurring of fiction and fact, censorship, and the quest to preserve truth. In that vein of "truthiness," DESCRIBE THE NIGHT also brings fictional representations of historical figures and entirely fictional characters together. It's also a test of my (admitted lack of) knowledge about 90 years of Russian history; it was only AFTER seeing the play that I realized Jewish writer Isaac Babel, Russian secret police officer Nikolai, and his wife Yevegenia were in fact real people.

The play interweaves these three figures with four other characters as their lives intersect in unexpected ways at three distinct points in 1920, 1989, and 2010. If this seems convoluted at times, it is. Joseph structures the play as a mystery on multiple levels, and one of the greatest initial mysteries is how all the characters are connected. DESCRIBE THE NIGHT is ambitious, and I wasn't able to connect all the threads, but Joseph contrasts that grandiosity with the way in which the characters relate. The scenes play out as intimate conversations that feel deeply personal, and it's a smart contrast to the historical context.

DESCRIBE THE NIGHT shifts between 1920 in which we see Isaac (James Vincent Meredith) and Nikolai (Yasen Peyankov) in the early days of their friendship (and the ensuing love triangle between the two men and Nikolai's wife Yevgenia (Sally Murphy), 1989 in which KGB agent Vova (Steppenwolf Co-Artistic Director Glenn Davis) is asked to surveil Nikolai's granddaughter Urzula (Charence Higgins), and 2010 in which journalist Mariya (Caroline Neff) asks the help of car rental agent Feliks (Jack Cain) in the wake of a deadly plane crash that killed 96 people, including the then Polish president and his wife. These events may seem unrelated, but Isaac's red journal becomes a key object across all of them. Just as Mariya aims to report the truth in 2010 (even though she says she's merely a human interest reporter), Isaac's journal becomes a symbol of the truth and the desire to preserve it across the course of history.

Under the direction of Austin Pendleton, the ensemble all turn in formidable performances. Even when the play becomes complicated and in some instances murky, the performances retain integrity. Though his character's actions are often despicable, Peyankov is the comedic dark horse as Nikolai. Peyankov's dry and wry deliveries make his unusual repartee with Isaac all the wittier. Meredith has a decidedly calmer and more introspective presence as Isaac, as befits his writer identity. Murphy is magnificent as Yevgenia, equal parts funny and heartbreaking. She's particularly fantastic when introducing KSB agent Vova to a special leech soup that she and her granddaughter Urzula enjoy; to eat the soup, diners must first prick their fingers, feed the leeches, and then consume the soup. Vova is usually even-keeled and unnerving, but Davis makes his reaction come alive. Davis's stoicism is also a contrast to Murphy's outright embrace of Yevgenia's quirkiness. Though she doesn't have much stage time, Higgins brings a groundedness to Urzula. As Mariya and Feliks, Neff and Cain's characters meet as strangers in dire circumstances-and they both beautifully portray the bond that quickly forms when people meet under duress. Neff has a graceful, powerful energy as Mariya, and it's particularly poignant to see her come head-to-head with Davis's Vova later in the play.

The interpersonal connections that Joseph sets forth in DESCRIBE THE NIGHT form the heart of the play. Admittedly I think the play tries to bite off more lessons and moments from history than it can reasonably portray, but it's this thread of humanity throughout the two hours and forty-five minutes of the play that kept me interested. In this way, DESCRIBE THE NIGHT also reflects on the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell others. What stories do we need to tell to ensure our survival, and which narratives are we willing to risk our survival to preserve?

DESCRIBE THE NIGHT plays through April, 2023 at the Ensemble Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1646 North Halsted Street. Tickets start at $20.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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