4 Stars out of 4
In French and Spanish and indeed many languages, a word can be either male or female, which was a source of mystery and consternation when I began to study romance languages. The gender assignment of a particular noun seemed arbitrary and often counter intuitive, but unlike our world, in these languages, it is not possible for a noun to be anything BUT male or female. I felt the same sense of mystery and consternation as I entered Steppenwolf Theatre for the new Taylor Mac play Hir, which among other things, lays out a portion of a vast new landscape of personal pronouns, and attempts to guide the audience through a spectrum of evolving gender (and other) identities. But that is NOT what this black comedy/family drama is about, really. It is about what we lose and what we gain by living. It is about the terribly messy and tragic act of trying to figure out who one is.
The play opens with Paige (Amy Morton in a tour de force role) anxiously awaiting the return of her son Isaac (played by Ty Olwin), from the war. The house she occupies is wrecked. Her spouse(an unabashedly raw Francis Guinan) in clown makeup wig and nightgown is clearly disabled. She yells off stage to Max (the firecracker Em Grosland), the younger child. Isaac attempts to enter, but the front door is blocked with debris. When he comes in the back door he is stunned at the disarray: this is not the home he left, this is not what he meant to come back to. This is a home that no one clearly is keeping.
Isaac is a scarred individual: on the Marine clean up team for bodies broken and exploded, his PTSD manifests as throwing up at triggers. We find out he was dishonorably discharged for self medicating with meth. As the act unwinds, we are made aware that the hulking mostly non verbal father, Arnold ,was a wretchedly abusive angry man who regularly sent his wife and child to the ER and who has survived a stroke during Isaac’s tour. Paige has made do, gotten by in the way that wives and mothers do, and in a passive aggressive way, extracts a kind of revenge: medicating him with estrogen to keep him calm, infantilizing him, chilling him with her air conditioner. She is consciously not cleaning the house because order was Arnold’s job and she is rejecting him. Then Max appears, in transition from sister to brother. As the family reunites and catches up, there are so many memorable lines in this show that should be memes. Paige’s explanation of pronouns should be required watching—funny and informative.
In the second act, while Paige and Max are out doing Cultural Saturday, an adaptation they have adopted to try to build something from the wreckage of their lives, Isaac attempts to put their Humpty Dumpty dysfunctional home back together. He puts his father in a man’s shirt, cleans, folds and organizes, at once trying to remake what he remembered, but in the process becoming his father complete with tyrannical orderliness and, in the final stunning scene, the same destructive violence. Isaac tries to return to or revive a past.
Paige banishes her beloved son saying you are not welcome here, and some even more awful hurtful things, and after he has left, she observes, with a bloody face, that in life you find sometimes you lose things and you cannot get them back.
Throughout this ugly gorgeous work, Paige is valiantly trying to reinvent herself, as much as Max is trying to figure out who ze is. Paige is a kind of Clark Kent everyday mild mannered superhero who goes flying hell bent into a future she is betting has got to be better than the past she refuses to look at. Like Gal Gadots new rendition of Wonder Woman, she looks straight at the adversity and plows on through .
This play is the mirror and the hammer of our fractious time. It acknowledges that everything we know about the world has come apart. As Paige says: “The places you have been to do not exist anymore”, and there is no longer a set of rules or customs to govern how we work our way through the mine field of human relations. Every once in a while we step on something we should not have and everything blows up. And many of us keep going.
Director Hallie Gordon keeps the show moving along almost too rapidly so we don’t see the hits till they land. A special shout out to Collette Pollard, whose scenic design tells half the story the minute we lay eyes on it..
Hir is a wickedly funny deeply disturbing play that is not for those solely seeking an amusement, but for those who want to look clear eyed at our human condition. It is also a balm for those seeking to see full blooded, complex roles for women over 40, where the female character gets most of the lines and the girl gets to drive the plot.
Hir is playing in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, Tuesdays through Sundays until August 20, 2017. Tickets are available at 312-335-1650 or at www.steppenwolf.org or go to http://www.theatreinchicago.com/hir/8397/