Will Torrey (Vaughn Armstrong) has a problem. It's 1992, and he's a West Virginia steelworker out on strike against a mill with a distant owner. Really distant — in Moscow; thanks to a corporate-crime indictment, Richard Miller (Jon Sklaroff) is safely out of the FBI's reach. Nevertheless, along with another union member, Lilly (Emily Adams), Will flies to the former Soviet Union to confront Miller — only to get arrested for accidentally causing the death of one of Miller's bodyguards during a scuffle. At the start of T.S. Cook's playRavensridge (which opened over the weekend at Fremont Centre Theatre), Will is languishing in jail — where he becomes locked in arguments with some unlikely debaters about the nature of class and the future of American unions.

Mieke Kramer

(Click to enlarge)

Russian romance: Reynolds and Adams in Ravensridge

Most of this short play is given to conversations between quick-tempered Will and the laconic Major Viktor Davidykov (Robert Trebor), a dour investigator whose moods are clouded by dark nostalgia for the old Soviet Union but leavened by a curiosity about Americans. As Russian society is being shattered and reconfigured outside, Davidykov interrogates Will somewhere in the bowels of a Stalin-era prison complex, a kind of pocket gulag where time stands still.

“We're an enlightened police force,” Davidykov purrs, trying to reassure his deeply suspicious prisoner that the old methods are a thing of the past — while intimating that he might arrest the innocent Lilly to force Will to be more forthcoming.

The two men, roughly the same middle age, are products of their time and geographies, although Will's reflexive anticommunism is tempered by his admission that while class was never before an issue in America, it's a notion that's starting to catch on in the wake of Wall Street's new, predatory brand of capitalism. The Communist Davidykov, however, knows class struggle when he sees it, and, living in Yeltsin's new Russia, he's all too familiar with the power of oligarchs.

This is a play of ideas, then. Paying attention to Will and Davidykov's give-and-take is worth the trouble, for Ravensridge illuminates some dangerously overlooked truths. It is a commonplace today, for example, that Marxist theory is obsolete, thanks to modern events that include the collapse of Stalinist states and a supposedly more horizontal distribution of wealth. The reality, however, is that while Marxism has vanished, history continues to follow Marx's script — as global markets shrink, capital becomes more feral, while the rights of the working class (magically renamed the “middle class” by American labor leaders and Democratic politicians) are increasingly assaulted and the environment is degraded.

Ravensridge's highlight comes with the arrival of Richard Miller (played by Sklaroff with exquisite contempt), the runaway wheeler-dealer whom Will came to Russia to confront. In Davidykov's interrogation room, the grandly satanic Miller dismisses America's impotent unions to Will's face: “You nail signs on walls and walk in fucking circles!” He tells Will his future can be glimpsed in the hothouse of the new Russia, whose economy has essentially been hijacked by eight billionaires. Like any Luciferian figure, Miller offers a deal to Will that will settle the strike and pave the way for Miller's return to business as usual in America.

While Miller's appearance comes at a critical moment in the play, we soon realize the story needs more of him. For without Miller and his social-Darwinist sneers, the story falls into the trap of claustrophobic and repetitive pacing. Just because it has ideas doesn't mean that Ravensridge should resemble a Fox TV panel discussion, which at times it does. Its earnest tone is set early on by the recurring presence of a Troubadour (Kim Story) who strolls in between scene blackouts to sing labor songs by Earl Robinson, Merle Travis and others. Story provides a nice historical anchor, but his appearances erase any narrative ambiguity — we're not asked, but told, which side we are on, and so Cook, his work done, doesn't bother producing any twists that might make us question Will's motives.

There are other problems. Cook sets his play in 1992, which, the program inaccurately states, is “two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” This minor anachronism (Boris Yeltsin actually turned out the lights on the USSR at the very end of 1991) leads to slightly bigger (and wholly unnecessary) fibs regarding the Chechnyan war as well as the date of Russia's usurpation by its handful of oligarchs. It seems that Cook wrote his play in 1993, but has inexplicably backdated subsequent events to that time.

These are nagging trifles, though, compared to the more serious unanswered questions of what, exactly, Will and Lilly had planned to say to Miller had they the chance to corner him. Cook's play was inspired by an actual event in which striking steel-union members traveled to Switzerland to meet with fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich (he of the infamous Bill Clinton pardon). Yet there needs to be a clearer explanation of Will and Lilly's strategy, because when Will does meet this cuff-linked man without a country, Miller does most of the talking as Will listens, mouth agape.

Lilly's character, incidentally, is pretty much an afterthought created to justify a romantic subplot. Her relationship with Davidykov's deputy, Mikhail (Jed Reynolds), however, is neither credible nor especially needed. Director James Reynolds only emphasizes the script's talky nature by placing Davidykov in declarative poses, away from Will, so that he appears to be addressing some historical jury or, at least, a big window — when as far as we can tell, he's only facing a prison wall. Likewise, in the first scene between Mikhail and Lilly, the junior-officer cop has his hands all over the visiting American before, presumably, they've had any time to strike sparks.

Still, Armstrong and Trebor make a good team, with Torrey's drawling hillbilly playing off Davidykov's apparatchik, who seems to be channeling Dr. Soberin from Kiss Me Deadly.

Though Will's predicament doesn't remotely feel dire (Davidykov's demeanor never signals a serious intention to recommend Will's prosecution), and the plot suffers from a false ending (which led its opening-night audience to begin its curtain-call applause before it realized there was more to come), Ravensridge nevertheless shows a refreshing courage to raise questions about the increasingly rigid stratification of America's classes. And it cuts to the heart of what it means to work in America today, when jobs are being exported abroad quicker than we can ship frozen hamburger patties. (It's a question not often raised outside revivals of the stage-musical adaptation of Studs Terkel's Working.) Are we to once again become a nation of scabs and disorganized labor, or something both humbler and more generous, a place that would make Will — and even Miller — want to return home?

RAVENSRIDGE | By T.S. COOK | FREMONT CENTRE THEATRE, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena | Through March 20 | (866) 811-4111

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