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Family ties unite, unravel in multilayered ‘You Got Older’

Caroline Neff stars as Mae and Francis Guinan portrays Dad in "You Got Older." | Michael Brosilow

As Clare Barron’s dark comedy, “You Got Older,” opens, a young woman named Mae is running away from her unexpectedly unraveling life in Minneapolis. She has broken up with her boyfriend, lost her job (he was also her boss and got his revenge), and she has a nasty, nervous rash on her back that’s only getting worse.

Mae flees to her childhood home near Seattle where she plans to care for her father who is fighting an aggressive cancer. Her life is in flux; his is a life well-lived and he isn’t quite ready to give it up just yet.

‘You Got Older’
When: Through March 11
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20-$89
Info: steppenwolf.org

Solidly directed by Jonathan Berry with fine performances all around, “You Got Older” blends reality and fantasy into a sometimes uneasy look at the one-way movement of time — whether you’re ready for it to or not. It’s also about family, the ties that bind and how you can go home again.

It’s sweet relief that up-and-coming playwright Barron has written a play that refuses to slide into the traditional dysfunctional family angst. Sure there are disagreements and arguments here, but they never become nasty. Instead, the author offers moments of real connection as Mae tries to figure out her future.

Mae (an appealingly flummoxed Caroline Neff) and her good-natured Dad (another winning performance by the invaluable Francis Guinan) are close, but the tangle of emotions here nevertheless results in awkward moments beginning with a low-key discussion of the plants in his vegetable garden, dental problems and the proper toothbrush to use.

Mae (Caroline Neff) and Cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) share a moment in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of “You Got Older” by Clare Barron. | Michael Brosilow

Later, but not yet, her father warns he will pummel her with the usual parental questions: When are you going to look for a job? How are you going to pay your bills? Where is your future headed? A frustrated Mae won’t have the answers.

As she unwillingly settles into the bedroom next to her father’s instead of her usual basement abode, Mae quickly finds it’s strange trying to fit her adult life into the home she left as a teenager. The rules don’t change but she has. Mae’s attempt to escape from the reality of her mundane life, involves wild sex fantasies involving a randy cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) that blatantly expose her sexual frustrations and loneliness. On more solid ground she reverts to her teenage days and sneaks out at night to a bar where she meets Mac (Glenn Davis), a high school friend who tries to pick her up (he mistakes her for her sister Hannah). They connect over gross body details (pus, scabs and the aforementioned rash). Later he will sneak into her bedroom through a window for a tryst that will fail to get off the ground.

Barron also has a nice way with the natural conversations that flesh out family dynamics via seemingly innocuous small talk. In a scene where Mae and her siblings, Hannah (Audrey Francis), Jenny (Emjoy Gavino) and Matthew (David Lind), gather around their father’s sickbed, the playwright captures — with humor and affection — their banter about “the family smell,” Mae’s questionable decision to knit a sweater for her ex, Jenny’s wedding prospects,  and the odd components of the hospital room meal supplied by Hannah.

Despite the fantasy sequences which shift the play’s mood with an uneasy jolt, “You Got Older” has a subtle, realistic appeal that pokes at life and death while highlighting the moments of connection that break through the distractions messing up Mae’s life.

The play’s lovely final scene at Jenny’s wedding, where the siblings dance wildly with each other to the Pitbull/Kesha hit “Timber,” is filled with an emotional truth. In the end, despite the distractions life throws at you, it’s the lifelong connections that matter as you hold on to each other while racing toward the end.

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

Emjoy Gavino (Jenny, from left), ensemble member Caroline Neff (Mae), Audrey Francis (Hannah) and David Lind (Matthew) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of “You Got Older,” written by Clare Barron and directed by Jonathan Berry. | Michael Brosilow