THE BOILER ROOM, Steppenwolf Studio Theatre. Continuing the fine work of its 1996 and 1997 revivals of Golden Boy and Our Town, Steppenwolf's youth-oriented Arts Exchange program now tackles a darker, more contemporary family drama. Playwright Reuben Gonzalez's semiautobiographical saga is set in the boiler room of a New York tenement about to go co-op. The hard-luck tenants, a family who've lived in basements all their lives, literally have nowhere to go but up.
Mired in self-pity and guilt giving, Olga Acosta (Laurie Martinez, in a lacerating performance) must deal with people banging on the pipes to demand more heat, an absent husband, a son (Eric Aviles) who steals when he's not coughing his lungs out, and a fantasy-weaving daughter (Sandra Marquez) who wants to marry her way out of the ghetto but keeps picking the wrong guy (the latest played by Tony Ramos). Dumping on one another is what they do best, and they do it often.
Gonzalez brings the family back together, however, through a kind of hard-edged healing--like a rock bouncing when it hits bottom. Happily, their reclamation feels as right as their despair. Teatro Vista artistic director Edward F. Torres's staging grounds Gonzalez's Ashcan realism in sturdy, unsentimental performances. Whether slapping her son silly or praying before a shrine erected on the boiler, Martinez's Olga wears her woes like tailor-made doom. The other characters seem to have come straight from a documentary. --Lawrence Bommer