Comic-drama 'Hir' tackles abuse, transgender issues in Steppenwolf production

  • Paige (Amy Morton) explains why her incapacitated husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan), is wearing makeup and a women's housecoat to their son, Isaac (Ty Olwin), in "Hir." Taylor Mac's comic-drama runs through Aug. 20 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

    Paige (Amy Morton) explains why her incapacitated husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan), is wearing makeup and a women's housecoat to their son, Isaac (Ty Olwin), in "Hir." Taylor Mac's comic-drama runs through Aug. 20 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

  • Isaac (Ty Olwin) tries to comprehend the changes at home spearheaded by his mother, Paige (Amy Morton), in "Hir" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

    Isaac (Ty Olwin) tries to comprehend the changes at home spearheaded by his mother, Paige (Amy Morton), in "Hir" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

 
 
Updated 7/13/2017 12:13 PM

Dysfunctional families are a mainstay of American theater. But playwright Taylor Mac catapults dysfunction to extremes with the cutting comic-drama "Hir."

Now enjoying a high-profile Chicago premiere with Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Mac's 2015 off-Broadway play posits an absurdist "what-if" premise: What happens when the oppressed become oppressors? But "Hir" doesn't just raise questions. Mac not only aims to shock with his stock characters' outrageous behavior, but also to educate audiences about transgender issues.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Director Hallie Gordon and set designer Collette Pollard's opening visual for "Hir" is one of bait and switch. Antique footlights and garishly plush curtains give the impression that you're in for theatrical glamour. Instead, the curtain rises on a suburban California hovel of a home that wouldn't be out of place on a TV episode of "Hoarders."

This deliberately disorganized setting is what greets Isaac (Ty Olwin), a marine who was dishonorably discharged for drug use. After three years of serving in Afghanistan and dreaming of a happy homecoming, Isaac becomes distraught at all of his family's turnarounds.

His once-abusive father Arnold (Francis Guinan) has been incapacitated by a stroke, and has been forced to wear women's housecoats and makeup at the whim of his newly liberated and craft-loving wife, Paige (Amy Morton). And Isaac's home-schooled teenage sister is now in the process of transitioning to be his empowered transgender brother, Max (Em Grosland).

Paige (Amy Morton), left, tries to keep up with her female-to-male transitioning son, Max (Em Grosland), in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Hir."
Paige (Amy Morton), left, tries to keep up with her female-to-male transitioning son, Max (Em Grosland), in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Hir." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company
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Paige is gung-ho about being supportive of her transgender son -- so much so that she has soaked up all sorts of academic theories on gender and executed them to often uncomfortable extremes. For example, Paige reasons that their home should be a mess because she sees housework as patriarchal drudgery to keep women down.

When Isaac tries to restore the home to the way things were before, tensions arise. Pay close attention to the family's battle over the air conditioner, since it can be interpreted as a metaphor for opposing factions trying to dictate comfort levels with transgender people becoming more out and open in society.

Paige (Amy Morton) and her incapacitated husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan), explain the preferred pronouns for transitioning transgender teen Max in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Hir."
Paige (Amy Morton) and her incapacitated husband, Arnold (Francis Guinan), explain the preferred pronouns for transitioning transgender teen Max in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of "Hir." - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow/Steppenwolf Theatre Company

"Hir" often feels like an educational lecture, particularly with transgender issues ranging from the effects of hormones to preferred gender-neutral pronouns (hence the title). Yet Mac infuses the play with enough dark humor and tense desperation to keep it from feeling too cerebrally dry.

Mac doesn't play favorites with the flawed family in "Hir." Director Gordon and her fine ensemble seize on that fact to deliver real flashes of emotional resentment and hurt, while also playing up the wacky comedy of "Hir's" off-kilter reality.

Following on the heels of Antoinette Nwandu's racially charged drama "Pass Over," "Hir" shows once again that Steppenwolf is undaunted in tackling challenging works. The play does its part to prod audiences to question a politically polarized issue, while both laughing and cringing at the deliberate family dysfunction.

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