Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Aug. 20
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Taylor Mac’s “Hir” takes the dysfunctional family story, a common theatrical theme, to a whole new level, but what we’re supposed to get from it isn’t entirely clear.
The press release dubs the play a “subversive comedy” and quotes the playwright, actor, singer-songwriter and performance artist saying judy (his preferred personal pronoun) started it in 1997, “wildly” inspired by Steppenwolf’s production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” on Broadway because of the “poetic inquiry into the broken and hidden parts of our culture.” Interestingly, the subjects of Mac’s inquiry aren’t exactly hidden two decades later, and what he makes of them strikes me as a tragedy about the failure of our culture more than a comedy, even if it is bitingly funny and a canny satire of contemporary mores.
Mac explodes the nuclear family conventions prevalent in the mid-20th century, roughly the era of the “starter house” in California’s Central Valley where the characters still live. We learn that the father, Arnold (Francis Guinan)–who we see in the opening scene looking like a deranged female clown in a multicolored fright wig, garish makeup, and a rumpled nightgown—lost his job as a plumber after 33 years to a Chinese-American woman. His anger inflamed, he began beating his wife, Paige (Amy Morton) and daughter, Maxine, even more than before, until he had a stroke.
Now Paige is taking her revenge on her brutal husband, who moves spastically and can barely speak. Besides dressing him in a diaper and woman’s clothing, she mixes estrogen into the smoothie of his medications to keep him docile, sprays him with a water bottle when he misbehaves as if he were a naughty pet, and humiliates him any way she can. She’s also let the household completely disintegrate, so clothing and bedding are scattered and piled all over the place, the kitchen is a disaster area, furniture blocks the front door, and nothing is where it belongs. In addition, the clunky old room air conditioner is going full blast, though Arnold is shivering. (The gasp-worthy scenic design is by Collette Pollard.)
Meanwhile, Maxine is transitioning to Max (Em Grosland), to hir (preferred personal pronoun, a cross between “him” and “her,” pronounced “here”) mother’s delight. Sporting a scrappy beard and blue hair, ze (another of hir’s preferred personal pronouns) also is a know-it-all teenager, quick to spout half-baked opinions and assert that ze is educating mom rather than the other way around.
Older son Isaac (Ty Olwin) enters this maelstrom, returning from three years overseas in the military, where he worked in Mortuary Affairs collecting body parts and sending them home out of respect for the deceased and their families. Dishonorably discharged for a drug offense, and probably suffering from PTSD (though he denies it), he’s desperate to be back in his own home—until he sees what’s happened to it and is horrified.
Isaac tries to re-establish some order, beginning by yanking off Arnold’s wig and trying to remove his makeup. He doesn’t have that much trouble adjusting to Max’s new persona, though ze initially is testy and confrontational, but he and Paige soon are at loggerheads. Paige, who is proud of having gotten a job at a not-for-profit, is head of the household now and wants Isaac to do what she says. He wants her to treat Arnold like a human being even if he was abusive, and he longs for the security of the home he left.
Their battle of the wills escalates, and we know it won’t end well. The wonder is that we care at all about any of these characters, who are impossibly far from any definition of normal and not at all nice. But we do, at least a little, thanks to Mac’s smart writing, Hallie Gordon’s sensitive direction, and the first-rate performances.
Amy Morton is brilliant as Paige. She exudes an air of calm, even serenity, as she is saying an doing the most outrageous, monstrous things—and assuring Isaac that she’s not insane. As she repeatedly tells him that the condition of the house doesn’t matter, that nothing matters, or gleefully talks about “paradigm shifts,” or occasionally lashes out angrily at his or Arnold’s disobedience, we have the growing sense that this is a woman who will never really recover from the abuse she suffered and is in a state of despair.
Despair also infects Olwin’s troubled but sympathetic Isaac, who tries but fails to reshape the reality in front of him until Paige pushes him to an act of rage. Even Arnold, half comprehending and out-of-it as he is, despairs, as his attempts to escape and outburst when Paige isn’t around suggest. Guinan is stunning in a role that requires him, literally and metaphorically, to let it all hang out.
The only one for whom there’s a ray of hope is Max, arguably Mac’s stand-in. Ze goes from being a bratty kid to a confused young adult unsure of almost everything, and coming out from under Paige’s thumb, becomes capable of an act of compassion.
Maybe this means that Mac believes compassion can save the family—and the world—but I’m not sure. What is certain, though, is that “Hir” is worth seeing, even if you end up not liking it. Some section, in fact, are priceless, including the discussion of gender vis-a-vis Noah’s Arc and the way Guinan’s Arnold tries to defy Morton’s Paige over that air conditioner. Applause, too, for all the designers.