The late film critic Roger Ebert famously called movies “empathy machines,” which is also an apt description of Sanctuary City, a timely, moving play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Martyna Majok receiving its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

In a moment of heightened tensions surrounding the current influx of asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela into Chicago, Sanctuary City explores the coming-of-age legal and emotional dilemmas of two teens in early 2000s New Jersey who were brought to America by their undocumented parents as young children and now face the likelihood of being expelled from the only country they’ve ever known through no fault of their own.

Set in Newark, Sanctuary City follows best friends B (Grant Kennedy Lewis) and G (Jocelyn Zamudio) as they attempt to complete their senior year of high school. B’s mom is going back to their unspecified country of origin, but B wants to continue his life in America and go to college, though he has no viable path to citizenship. G climbs up the fire escape to B’s room most nights, to escape beatings from her mom’s boyfriend. They don’t quite find love in this hopeless place, but they do forge an incredibly close and supportive bond.

We see that bond grow in the course of rapid-fire repeated moments and echoed scenes marking the passage of time over chicken Parmesan dishes G brings back to B after her restaurant shifts, or excuses G relays to B to tell the school to cover for the fact that she’s missing classes due to the beatings at home, or anxious conversations about how B can possibly make a life in America on his own after his mother leaves. Hanging over the proceedings, directed with brisk assurance by Steph Paul, is the gnawing realization that our nation is capriciously putting these innocent young lives in peril for no discernible reason.

Finally, the tide turns for G. Her mom leaves her abuser and successfully secures U.S. citizenship for herself and her daughter, who’s still barely under 18. It’s a minor miracle, and G pledges to marry B to secure his citizenship as well. One senses that she makes this offer out of more than friendship, but B doesn’t seem to feel the same way.

We discover why when G returns home from college in Boston to find B living with his boyfriend, Henry (Brandon Rivera), who loves B every bit as much as she does; more to the point, B loves Henry right back. Henry would be happy to marry B for real, but, of course, the play takes place several years before gay marriage is legalized in the U.S. More capricious denial of B’s longed-for, well-deserved pursuit of happiness.

Thanks to soulful performances by all three actors (especially Zamudio, who displays a firecracker wit), one’s heart goes out to everyone involved. Everyone, that is, except for the politicians who make these young people’s lives so difficult just because they can.

We need more of these empathy machines as the buses keep rolling into town and the shelters fill with asylum seekers desperate for better lives just like the generations of immigrants before them who helped build our vibrant nation.

Sanctuary City runs through November 18 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.

Photo by Michael Brosilow