If your history with Steppenwolf Theatre reaches back to the 1980s and ’90s, you might want to conjure up memories of its productions of Sam Shepard’s “True West” and “Buried Child,” or Lynn Siefert’s long-forgotten “Coyote Ugly” to serve as a frame of reference for it latest production, Taylor Mac’s “Hir.”
When: Through Aug.20
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
Think of Mac’s play, now receiving one of those take-no-prisoners, anything goes Steppenwolf productions, as the vision of Darwinian evolution (or de-volution) as it has now manifested in that species popularly known as “the dysfunctional American family” of the early 21st century. Then, turn up the volume to fever pitch as you witness how one particular California family has become engaged in a whole new mode of existence — one reflecting the era of transgender transformations; a rage-inducing realignment of traditional male and female roles; the phenomenon of endless warfare and post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by returning soldiers; and the post-recession distrust of both home ownership and debt-laden university degrees as cornerstones of the American dream.
The intriguing irony here is that by the end of the play you have to wonder if Mac — the playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist and director who is on the cutting edge of such changes — really meant to chronicle it all in such a nightmarish way. For “Hir,” whether intentionally or not, might begin as a blackly comic evocation of current social and cultural shifts, offering a self-mocking manifesto for the non-binary era. But ultimately it moves far beyond satire, conjuring an intensely cruel picture of this new world order. And does anyone in this family really seem happier or more content? Hardly.
“Hir” opens in the California home of a family that clearly has gone off the rails, with designer Collette Pollard’s trashed living room set resembling the inside of a dumpster. Paige (Amy Morton) rules the roost with a tyrannical streak. Her husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan), the victim of a stroke (both real and metaphorical), is wearing carnival makeup and an adult diaper, and can barely speak. And Max (Em Grosland), once their daughter, is now in the process of becoming hir, and as everyone sees, has already sprouted a little beard while going through hormone therapy.
Enter Isaac (Ty Olwin), a Marine just back from three years of service. He is every bit as traumatized by the condition in which he has found his family — and the transformation of his former sister — as by his battlefield job of collecting the human remains of his fellow soldiers so they can be sent home for burial.
There also has been a major power shift in the family. Paige, once the oppressed wife, has taken charge with a vengeance, relegating the formerly controlling, and now wholly emasculated Arnold, to a zombie. Yes, a gender paradigm shift has taken place, and as Max explains at one point, “we all come from fish” anyway. As for Isaac, who tries valiantly to restore order, he realizes the social order has been overturned and he no longer has a place to call home.
Under Hallie Gordon’s high-energy direction, the cast of four acts up a storm in classic “old school” Steppenwolf style, meaning the more grotesque and outrageous the better. Without question this production belongs to Morton, a hurricane-force actress whose combination of mind-boggling discipline and let-it-rip power knows no bounds. Guinan also goes for broke, but watching this masterful actor reduced to such humiliating antics might break your heart (even if his silent battle with Morton for control of the air conditioner button is priceless). Olwin turns in a wholly honest and ultimately poignant performance as Isaac. And Grosland makes the most of a character who is essentially a mouthpiece for Mac.
By the end of “Hir” a line from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” came to mind. It is spoken by a bachelor who realizes he has fallen in love and quips: “The world must be peopled.” Follow Mac’s play to its logical conclusion and you might be tempted to say: Well, we now have test tubes for that.