Even steel rusts, and that is the underlying theme, and title, of the new play currently in production by Duquesne University’s Red Masquers. The play, written by Duquesne alum F.J. Hartland, neatly ties the name of the show into the general premise as well as the emotional undertones of the characters. Even steel rusts, but metal isn’t the only thing that can wear over time.
Set in 1983 Pittsburgh, this play tells a familiar story to many who grew up in the area. The mills are closing and unemployment is high. Families are struggling to make ends meet. The world is changing. Desperation sometimes leads to greeting those changes with violence, and frustration often leads to ending the day with a trip to the bar. Pittsburgh’s always been a drinking town, after all. Scene changes are covered by radio announcements keeping the audience up to date with current affairs as the play goes on. It certainly helped me put myself in the mindset of these characters, being let down by the daily flood of tedious news.
For the Strnad family, dealing with the unemployment of Marek (Neil Donaldson), the husband and father of house, is the main stressor, but certainly not the only one. Luckily his wife Verka, played well as a tired yet persistent strong woman by Raquel Isabel Millacci, is employed. This makes it slightly easier on the household of the couple and their three children. The oldest child, Pavol (Evan W. Saunders), is in college but with substantial struggles of his own that find their way back into his parents’ home. And we can’t forget Marek’s elderly Slovak mother, Zuzana. The banter brought to the show by Alex McLeod’s Zuzana, or “Babka” as the family calls her, was delightful and familiar. While she was there mostly for her dry humor, McLeod’s Babka supplied the play with several little nuggets of wisdom. She’s a constant reminder that this is a story of the development of immigrants, despite tribulations. It’s a timely message.
Another firm reminder of the family’s roots is the mysterious imaginary friend that the Strnad Family’s youngest son, Matus, always has by his side. Matus is played by fourth grader Mark Henne, and he is a pleasure to watch on stage. The curiosity of his foreign mill-working friend (Byron Stroud) that only he can see is explained as the show plays out, and it puts a little twist on the imaginary friend trope. The humor found with this duo is a nice subtle compliment to the over-the-top hilarious Lauren Bostedo, who plays the middle Strnad child, Lenka. She’s struggling to find herself, and the attention of her family, and perfectly embodies that 80s high school girl cliché that we all know so well.
Director Lora Oxenreiter has a long history in theater, and her craft is evident in this new work. The characters move about the set fluidly and naturally. It was easy to feel like I was a guest at the Strnad house, observing dinner from afar. For the most part, the players were a great fit in their roles. Even the secondary characters stood out and had their moments. It was evident that Oxenreiter cast the show fittingly, playing to the actors’ humor and strengths. There was only one problem I had with the cast.
As the story played out, I wanted to sympathize with Marek. I’ve been through the unemployment runaround. It’s frustrating and can certainly make you want to throw things. Marek’s constant need to count to ten to settle himself spoke volumes to me. However, I was constantly distracted by the age of the actor playing Marek. Not to say that a younger man can’t play older, but with the rest of the cast so spot-on, this main character stood out. A beard would have gone a long way in transforming this college student into a father of a college student. Even some slowing of the speech, something to age his movements… It was hard to commiserate when I was thoroughly unconvinced.
That being said, the show as a whole was highly enjoyable. The story is solid, and there is plenty of humor laid throughout to break up the gravity of the situation. The set and technical elements of the show were modest, bringing you into the scenes without stealing from the characters. And given that I saw the opening night of a brand new show, the cast and crew did a fantastic job bringing this show to life. The play is intriguing, especially because of the local interest piqued by Hartland. Rust reminds us to think about the hardships that paved the way for where we are now. That as things corrode, it takes work and time to make them sturdy again. Something we could all benefit from remembering now and then.
Rust runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater through February 26th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Special thanks to the Duquesne Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of their Facebook page.