Speak American

Mark D. Staley, Christopher McLinden, Chase Newell, John Shepard, Nicholas Ducassi and Daina Michelle Griffith
City Theatre is currently presenting Eric Simonson's Speak American on their mainstage. This two-act drama set in Homestead, in the South Side area of Pittsburgh, is compelling on several levels. It is part documentary, as it presents a historical setting that helped form the rich fabric of Pittsburgh—and of the country in the 20th century: Labor vs. management, the exploitation of immigrant workers, the struggle of the working woman are all part of our history, with aspects that have continued through the present day. It is also a personal story, of one young woman who thrives on opening up the lives of immigrant steelworkers, by teaching them English while also sympathizing with their plight as non-English speaking immigrants and as factory workers under dangerous working conditions. Simonson, who always directs here, presents the big picture without forcing the characters to seem too broadly representative of the grander elements—they are still individuals, and interesting ones to boot. In fact, each one (even the minor characters) are drawn and played so richly, it makes me wish Speak American were an excerpt from a sweeping novel. I would relish reading that novel and learning more about these characters.

Congratulations to Adam Belcoure of Chicago Casting for bringing in a number of excellent actors and placing them with care into these roles. Though the role of Rebecca Eastman could have veered toward a bit of an Unsinkable Molly type, it doesn't in the hands of Daina Michelle Griffith. Her skillful underplaying gives the character strength and authenticity. In the almost "boo-hiss" role of factory manager Tom O'Reilly, David Whalen carefully balances on the line separating pitiable from sinister, putting a toe over the line on both sides when necessary. Literally scarred from the very treacherous work conditions he places workers in every day, O'Reilly is rightfully resentful (and of course, he's also drawn to Rebecca after she shows him a modicum of compassion). Among the students in Rebecca's English class is Yasen Dimitrov (Christopher McLinden). He is smart, aware and bursting with the desire to fight for something better. McLinden is excellent in the role. Speaking English is only the beginning; as the title suggest, the men are learning what it is to be an American as well—the good and the bad. At first, the love match between Yasen and Rebecca seems a bit too easy, but their passion for causes easily finds its way into a physical attraction. When the couple parts, however, it is unclear exactly why and also seems too easy—a brief lack of clarity in the script, perhaps.

The other students: Jakub Nicolella (Chase Newell), Vlado Batyi (Mark D.Staley), Janusz Warcynski (Nicholas Ducassi) and Ignac Wesnek (John Shepard) each have distinct personalities, and are surprisingly well developed, considering some speak very little English. Supertitles projected over Tony Ferrieri's striking industrial set provide translations, and, as they are often used when the men are arguing with each other with foul language, also some humorous moments. Adding richness and depth to the story and the production are pictoral projections, including historical photos and maps, presented subtly and artfully (it's not clear who earns the credit here: in addition ato Scenic Designer Ferrieri, there is also talented Lighting Designer Andrew David Ostrowski). Thanks to Dialect Coach Don Wadsworth, the actors avoid stereotype and their western European speech and accented English sound authentic, though I can't claim to be an expert.

Running only through May 31, Speak American will drawn you in and make you wish there were more. And you may learn something about the steel industry that defined Pittsburgh for so many years. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/.

Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons

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-- Ann Miner

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