There are certain plays and films with subject matter so intense that you may hesitate to claim that you “liked” them. When you walk out of a production of Killer Joe, for instance, with images of a saliva soaked chicken leg embedded in your brain, you don’t say that you “liked” the show--instead, you find other terms: you appreciated the play, you found it thought-provoking. But you did not, for problematic reasons, “enjoy it.”
This is exactly how I felt walking out of Steppenwolf’s latest undertaking, Tyler Mac’s notoriously sensational black comedy Hir. The sharp-witted, innovative work is August: Osage County for a more modern audience, one where heteronormativity is not the norm and instead readily accepts, and revels, in gender fluidity. The play has already moved beyond the acceptance stage and instead explores what happens when we move past acceptance...so far past that violence becomes an acceptable, family-oriented approach to intolerance.
The show begins as Isaac (Ty Olwin) returns home after a lengthy tour with the marines to find a very different home than the one he left. The once, according to Isaac's memory at least, orderly house has fallen into disarray, both literally (in the chaotic mess of clothes and trash littered throughout the home) and emotionally (in the state of the family itself). Arthur (Francis Guinan), the previously abusive patriarch, has been reduced to an invalid after suffering from a stroke, while the matriarch Paige (Amy Morton) relishes in Arthur’s inability to care for himself. Isaac's “little sister,” on the other hand, has grown into a gangly teenager transitioning to a male called Max (Em Grosland) who now prefers gender-neutral pronouns like hir. In short, it’s not quite the welcoming committee Isaac had expected, and the play follows the family in transition as they attempt to work through their collective issues.
The purposefully problematic, and “dark” element to the comedy comes as Paige, who seems to earnestly support and accept Max, wrecks havoc on everything else, perhaps embracing her newfound liberal nature a bit too much. She declares herself a feminist, and uses that logic to justify abusing her invalid husband, who once upon a time hurt her immensely. From coating him in clown makeup and forcing him to wear a nightgown to force-feeding him an estrogen-laced “shakey shake” each morning, Paige welcomes difference by shedding order and, perhaps, morality. Does Arthur’s previous abuse, as detailed by Isaac in a dramatic monologue, make Paige’s actions justifiable? Should intolerance be fought with violence?
The play is an experiment in discomfort, and the cast’s dedication to their roles allows you to forget that you are watching a play at all. While I did not have the pleasure of seeing Amy Morton, understudy Jennifer Engstrom absolutely immersed herself in the role of the endlessly supportive but perhaps wholly misguided Paige, making her seem both slightly crazed and sympathetic at the same time. Grosland’s Max balanced Paige out with an earnest and understated performance, at times acting extremely confident and, in other moments, exposing Max’s insecurity and vulnerability as ze goes through hir transition.
The only mishap, perhaps, comes from Guinan’s inconsistent performance as Arnold. At times, the severity of his stroke rendered him unable to perform basic tasks, yet in other instances he seemed to have a high level of understanding. My date for the evening happened to be a mental illness professional, and she pointed out the portrayal as potentially problematic.
Overall, though, Steppenwolf’s production is a beautifully rendered dark comedy that commands attention and elicits difficult, albeit unanswerable, questions.
Review by Emily Schmidt
Hir continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through August 20th. More information here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheateInChicago's Review Round Up.