Steppenwolf's 'You Got Older' adroitly mixes humor, despair
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"You Got Older" - ★ ★ ★ ½
It's an uncanny coincidence that the recent death of longtime Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member John Mahoney would come at the same time as the company's Chicago premiere of "You Got Older." Clare Barron's 2014 drama shines a light on both the mundane and meaningful inevitabilities of life and death, and director Jonathan Berry's richly acted production repeatedly hits all the right emotional and elegiac notes.
"You Got Older," inspired by events in Barron's life, focuses on Mae (Caroline Neff), a 30-something woman dealing with the emotional one-two punch of being dumped and fired by her boss.
In a convenient irony, however, Mae's misfortunes in Minneapolis free her up to return to her family's home in rural Washington state to help care for her 61-year-old widower father (Francis Guinan), who is undergoing treatments for cancer.
Neff and Guinan have a true-to-life rapport, especially as they embody the awkward reassumption of past parent-child roles. The cancer battle colors interactions between Mae and her dad, who go out of their way to sidestep conflicts and avoid getting too emotional over his tenuous mortality.
But "You Got Older" is not all doom and gloom. Much like a gross-out late-night Comedy Central sitcom, Barron provokes audiences with uncomfortable or shocked laughter.
Much of that comes from Mae's historically informed erotic dreams and fantasies involving a Cowboy (a comically brusque Gabriel Ruiz), who repeatedly rescues/abducts her from the wild. And an uncensored bar discussion between Mae and a former schoolmate, Mac (an endearingly overeager Glenn Davis), could raise a few eyebrows as they go on about bodily fluids and odd sexual turn-ons.
Mae dealing with her physical desires in light of her less-than-ideal living situation is one of the blunter aspects of "You Got Older." Yet the play also shines with Barron's ability to humorously capture the recognizable and often overlapping rhythms that go on between family members -- especially when they're tethered to their smartphones.
This is masterfully exemplified in a hilarious Seattle hospital room scene featuring Mae's bubbly out-of-town siblings Hannah (Audrey Francis), Jenny (Emjoy Gavino) and Matthew (David Lind). While their dad convalesces from surgery, the siblings' reunion gets both ribald and ridiculous. Watching these performers interact is a constant joy.
Director Berry conjures up great tension between stasis and propulsion throughout "You Got Older." This is visualized well in the cycle-of-the-season video projections by designer Rasean Davonte Johnson that fill out the physical scenery of backyard fences and distant forests by set designer Meghan Raham.
"You Got Older" is a drama where nothing much -- yet absolutely everything -- happens. In that way, it's a lot like life. And it serves as a timely vehicle to reflect and mourn as time marches on.
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Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday (2 p.m. Wednesday matinees begin Feb. 28), 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (no Sunday evening shows after Feb. 18); through March 11
Running time: About 2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Area paid parking garage and limited metered street parking
Rating: For mature audiences: some sexual content and language issues