Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through March 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
You’ve probably heard the advice to young writers to “write about what you know,” but judging by the Chicago premiere of Clare Barron’s “You Got Older” at Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, it should come with the corollary “make sure you have a really good editor.”
Written when Barron was 27, the play has “an embarrassingly autobiographical origin story” according to an interview in the program. It’s about a young woman who, like her, is dumped by her boyfriend. He also is her boss and fires her, so she goes to spend time with her father, who has been diagnosed with stage four cancer. The woman here is Mae (Caroline Neff), a Minneapolis lawyer, whose father lives outside of Seattle, and she is at such a low point that she has a mysterious rash she attributes (possibly) to stress, and her nights are filled with fantasies of a Cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) ravishing her in the midst of a snowstorm.
In the interview, the playwright discusses how she crafted the virtually plot-less two-plus hours, which illuminates why the work seems disjointed, more like an artist’s sketches for a painting than the painting itself, or a series of scenes rather than a fully developed drama. The opening scene, for example, is one of several between Mae and her dying Dad (Francis Guinan) about trivia, in this case peppers, and Barron says it came out of an assignment to write “the most boring scene I possibly could.” A hospital get-together with Mae and her three siblings in Dad’s room post-surgery, resulted from “a desire to have a big group scene in the middle of the play.” It’s the only time Hannah (Audrey Francis), Jenny (Emjoy Gavino), and Matthew (David Lind) appear, except for a joyful dance, apparently for Jenny’s wedding, that pops up at the end.
Summing up her style, Barron says “it’s a bunch of randomness, weird ideas, dreams that come to me, and then some formal shaping that create a kind of patchwork quilt that is the play.” That’s fairly accurate, except that there’s not enough shaping for a coherent, engaging evening, and Jonathan Berry’s very leisurely direction doesn’t help.
Barron’s strength is her ability to capture the intricacies of human interaction, and there are some insightful scenes that may hit home, such as a couple of the quiet conversations between Mae and her Dad or the argument that erupts and escalates when he tries to give her advice on how to conduct a job interview. The hospital scene, with the siblings analyzing the “family smell” and other inconsequential stuff, is alternately heart-breaking and hilarious—but goes on much, much too long.
Oddly enough, I didn’t feel any connection to the characters, even Neff’s Mae, who is onstage virtually the whole time. Her laid-back tone was distancing despite her palpable angst, and both her sexual fantasies about the Cowboy and her aborted real encounters with Mac (Glenn Davis), who thinks he remembers her from elementary school, though it turns out he knew her sister Hannah, seemed kind of superfluous, though Freudian scholars might have a field day with them.
Dad arguably is the most sympathetic character, albeit somewhat underwritten, and Guinan gives another in a long line of outstanding performances as this affable, loving man who, on the surface at least, accepts what life offers him and regrets only his inability to enjoy happy moments to their fullest instead of feeling guilty about not being busy doing something else.
Each sibling basically strikes a single note. Francis is most convincing as the nagging , bossy Hannah, in contrast to Gavino’s emotional, giggly lesbian Jenny. Lind’s Matthew doesn’t make much of an impression, while Davis’ Mac comes across as a nice guy elated at the possibility of getting laid but confused by the signals Mae is sending and reluctant to take advantage of her. Ruiz’s Cowboy is straight out of a pulp Western, which is just as it should be. Except a wave of sickness washes over him, part of Mae’s (and Barron’s) preoccupation with illness and the breakdown of the body.
Meghan Raham’s confusing scenic design features tall tree trunks behind a back fence that doubles as a wall, as well as sections of rooms that roll on and off as needed. The best thing about it are Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projections ranging from a snow storm to lifelike deer. Matt Chapman’s sound design was a weak link, at least where I was sitting: Some of the dialogue was barely audible, and I couldn’t hear all the lyrics to the recording Dad played of what he dubbed his “theme song,” which went on for about five minutes and was undoubtedly significant.
“You Got Older” would benefit from some reworking now that the playwright is older and has more perspective on the events that shaped it. It was originally intended to be presented without an intermission, and she might start by trimming it back to the 90-100 minutes that would make that more feasible.