“Be kind to your parents / though they don’t deserve it” —From the 1954 Broadway musical Fanny
The hits just keep on coming—along with the jabs, slaps, smacks, and finger flicks. Between Straight White Men, Pass Over, and now Taylor Mac‘s Hir (pronounced here, not her), the second half of Steppenwolf Theatre’s current season feels like the dramatic equivalent of a victim-impact statement, testifying to the traumas wrought by hetero white American male perps on pretty much everybody else.
In Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, one of the title characters has been brought to a state of spiritual paralysis by guilt over his privilege. Set in an urban ghetto, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over features not only the requisite brutal white cop but also a satanic Caucasian in a nice suit, who tempts two poor young black men with goodies out of the picnic basket of the American dream.
Hir has both of them beat, though, when it comes to indicting the powers that have so far been. As directed by Hallie Gordon, it’s far funnier too—at least until it’s not.
Picture the living/dining/kitchen area of a chintzy, working-class tract house somewhere in the Central Valley, that vast chunk of inland California where celebrities don’t live. The floor is covered in dirty laundry. Household goods are piled up against the front door like concertgoers after a scare. Over in the corner, his fist around a spoon, sits an older gentleman in a big red yarn wig and a lady’s nightgown, eating mush. His bearded face is covered in grease paint, clown style. That’s Arnold. A former plumber with rage issues, he had a mild stroke a while back, and wife Paige formulated a novel approach to nursing him. She administers all his meds once daily, in an estrogen-laced smoothie she calls a shaky shake. Now Arnold wanders the house in a jolly monosyllabic stupor, barely able to negotiate a doorknob. Rage issues solved.
Paige has formulated novel approaches to most problems, it seems. “We don’t do places anymore,” she tells her eldest son, Isaac, when he wonders why the Crisco isn’t in its usual spot in the cupboard. “We don’t do cupboards anymore. We don’t do order.”
Isaac has only just returned from a hitch in the marines, where he worked in “mortuary affairs,” retrieving and identifying body parts—his gag reflex on a hair-trigger as a result. The domestic patriarchy was healthy, if violent, when he left. Under the new order, his little sister, Max, has come out as genderqueer (pronouns: ze and hir) and sports a tuft of whiskers on hir chin. Paige has started homeschooling Max, and vice versa. Paradigm shifts go off like firecrackers on Independence Day. The central motion of Hir consists in Isaac’s attempts to cope with the constant popping noise.
All this sounds fairly extreme, doesn’t it? A wild allegory on the state of the nation. Topsy-turvy day in the gender wars. Yet strange to say, Hir in its early going comes across as obvious and conventionally provocative rather than edgy. Maybe I’ve been too thoroughly prepped by the previous Steppenwolf shows. Or maybe I’ve seen so many Trump-as-clown memes that I’m inurned to the sight of still another white man looking ridiculous. Or maybe truth really is authentically stranger than fiction. Whatever the case, the thrill of mere reversal is gone.
It isn’t until later, when Mac (pronoun judy) complicates issues, that things get interesting. It turns out that Paige’s isn’t a simple liberation narrative; she’s as much a part of the problem, in her way, as Arnold. Likewise, Isaac is both more open and retrograde than his backstory might suggest. And Max, the most self-aware of the bunch, bounces among loyalties in ways that are at once surprising, disturbing, and utterly human. Even Arnold finds a way to shock us, first because his humiliation awakens our compassion, then because that compassion is undeserved, and last, because, worthy or not, he personifies the fear that underlies so much of our civic discourse as the boom generation ages, the welfare state fails, and families disengage: What will become of me when I’m helpless?
Francis Guinan gives a great performance as Arnold, not so much because of his onstage abandon as because he parlays the appearance of abandon into unexpected subtlety. Amy Morton is blithely, bracingly cruel as Paige. Ty Olwin’s Isaac and Em Grosland’s Max are moving as the default adults in the room. Collette Pollard’s set is powerful, finally, for the secrets it gives up. v