Credit: Michael Brosilow

T
his play has an embarrassingly autobiographical origin story,” says
playwright Clare Barron in the program for You Got Older, running
now at Steppenwolf Theatre. And she runs down the real-life parallels to
prove it.

Like her 31-year-old alter ego, Mae, Barron (a) got dumped by her
boyfriend; (b) was fired from her job by that same boyfriend, who was also
her boss (which sounds like a lawsuit to me, though neither Barron nor Mae
goes there); and (c) learned that her dad had an advanced case of cancer,
all in short order. Barron and Mae both moved home, where, after what she
characterizes as a prolonged taxi down the “free-spirit runway,” Barron
finally put away childish things. And so, I guess, does Mae.

I say “I guess” because, although Barron’s program comments are explicit
about the rite of passage she experienced in tending to her sick father
(“For me, it was the moment where . . . I became an adult”), what if
anything happens to Mae isn’t so clear. Yes, she keeps Dad company in the
kitchen and the garden. Yet most of her time is taken up in solipsistic
fretting about her sex life (41 days without), the lump in her jaw, and the
ugly, itchy, bumpy rash that covers her back. Two of those problems seem to
be solved simultaneously when she encounters the endlessly accommodating
Mac at a bar. In a clever meet-cute, Mac mistakes Mae for her sister, on
whom he had a crush in the fourth grade, but quickly adapts when he
realizes his error. And as for the rash, he admits he’s actually into
oozing pustules.

Mae lets Mac rub salve on her back, but she reserves her deepest erotic
energies for the Cowboy who comes to her in her dreams. A retro-macho type
in the John Wayne, tie-’er-up-if-she-don’t-behave mode, the Cowboy supplies
a gauge of Mae’s infantile sense of helplessness, her desire to be
helpless.

And so it goes. We meet Mae’s siblings—bossy older sister Hannah, lesbian
PC-language-policeperson Jenny, big friendly lug Matthew—all of whom live
outside Seattle and bear a zeitgeisty resemblance to the Tim Robbins-Holly
Hunter brood in HBO’s Portland-based Here and Now. They sit around
Dad’s bed at the hospital, post-op, demonstrating their family dynamics as
well as some sub-Sarah Ruhlian wackiness. Mae herself is engagingly
uninhibited when it comes at least to talking about sex: she declines to
give any more blow jobs, she says, not for the usual reasons but because
they remind her of her mortality as they pile up toward the horizon.

The cumulative effect is wryly entertaining. As Mae’s sex talk indicates,
Barron is very good at ingratiating herself even as she allows for a light
whiff of edginess.

Still, there’s that strange silence around the central business of You Got Older: Mae’s belated coming of age. We know it’s supposed
to happen, if only because an old-style dumb show puts exclamation points
on that theme at the end of the play. But as far as I can tell, Mae’s only
discernible brush with transformation comes in a single, singularly
touching moment when Dad knocks at her bedroom door late one night, unable
to sleep and hoping to talk. Her childish egocentrism obstructs a possible
communion, and she clearly knows it. Then the moment is gone. Dumb show
notwithstanding, Mae doesn’t appear to grow up—she just gets older.

I’ve been thinking about why. One thing I know for sure is that Mae is
awfully difficult to parse, given her emotional inarticulateness as written
and her guarded-to-sullen affect as embodied by Caroline Neff in Jonathan
Berry’s staging. I also wonder whether the strong autobiographical content
has misled Barron, deceiving her into thinking that Mae’s struggle is as
self-evident to an audience as it must be to her—a classic case of being
too close to the material. A point in favor of this theory would be the way
Barron approaches the character of Dad: as a nice older fellow with nothing
much to say and hardly any inner life at all. In short, as a projection of
the father a loving daughter might cherish in her heart. Dad’s vacuity is
especially disappointing, by the way, because he’s played by Francis
Guinan, a normally fearless actor who communicates all the complexity here
of a man waiting for a bus.

Then again, maybe You Got Older is a harbinger of what plays will
come to be like in an era when people share photos of their meals on social
media. Maybe it’ll be enough to say, “This happened to me. That’s
interesting, right?”   v