In 1979, Anna Fishbeyn's family officially requested permission from the Soviet government to leave. As Jews, they never felt like they truly belonged in Russia and were frequently subjected to anti-Semitic harassment. In 1981, with the help of Jewish aid organizations and the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment (which made the USSR's most-favored-nation trade status contingent upon relaxed emigration policies), the Fishbeyns relocated from Moscow to Chicago. Fishbeyn recalls that journey (and the much longer one to find a new American identity) in her often fascinating, occasionally irritating solo show, My Stubborn Tongue, which is now closing out the season at The New Ohio Theatre.
Fishbeyn excels in unpacking the immigrant's dilemma of being trapped between two worlds: While her family faced anti-Jewish discrimination in Russia, they faced anti-Russian discrimination in Ronald Reagan's America. Also, both of her parents were highly educated professionals in the USSR, but were forced to take less prestigious jobs in the U.S. due to a language barrier and lack of connections.
Throughout the play, Anna returns to tape-cassette language lessons to train her stubborn Russian tongue to speak like an American. "I'm not here to make friends," she pointedly tells her prerecorded professor, sounding very much like a contestant on Survivor. With a lot of hard work and determination, Anna becomes "Annie" from Arizona, but is that really what she wants?
Much of My Stubborn Tongue is devoted to Anna discovering exactly who she is. As her parents get better jobs and make more money, we watch the tragic Russian refugee (complete with a ripped sweater and pleated Navy skirt) fade into a leather- and lamé-wearing child of the ‘80s. But as she enters college, she begins to reconnect with her Russian roots, donning a head scarf and reading Nabokov. Mid-makeout session, she incredulously asks one dumbfounded date, "If you're not willing to discuss Hitler and Stalin and anti-Semitism, how can I ever be attracted to you?"
This quest for identity is pretty standard in the autobiographical solo-show genre, but it is made all the more poignant in Fishbeyn's funny and charming immigrant's tale. The essence of the story is compelling on its own and you'll definitely walk away having learned something. That's why it's a shame that Fishbeyn and director Scott Klavan feel the need to dress everything up with forced affectation.
I lost count of the number of times Fishbeyn serenaded us in her mother's sing-songy church soprano. It's amusing the first time, but increasingly grating with each encore performance. Her other relatives (including a gnarled Babushka and a very pelvic father) don't fare much better under Fishbeyn's portrayal.
Adrian Roman's school project of a set adds little clarity or specificity to the story. Located far upstage, it consists of a box with a dressing screen and some blown-up black-and-white family photos (which are hard to see all the way against the back wall). At one point, an extended costume change has Fishbeyn hiding behind the screen, having what seems to be an improvised family feud with herself. Moments like these are more awkward than illuminating; they help stretch the show to a too-long hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
In the end, My Stubborn Tongue is a beautiful tale of the American Dream hiding under layers of amateurish stage fat. It's nothing that a good editor can't cut into shape. In its current form, it's also nothing that you need to feel bad about missing.