Chicago Theatre Review
A Family and a Society in Transition
Get ready for a wildly theatrical depiction of what seems to be the new reality in today’s world. The dysfunctional family never looked so grotesquely comical. Focusing on an unorthodox family, this play is more like a collective character study than a dramatic story. It scrutinizes the behavior of four unusual contemporary characters. They include Paige, a crazy housewife and mother; Arnold, her abusive husband, who’s recovering from a stroke; Isaac, their eldest son, who has just returned from overseas following three years in combat; and Max, their transgender teenage son, who’s in the process of becoming a young gay man.
This is the second installment of Taylor Mac’s collective work, motivated by his reverence for the works of Euripides, that’s entitled “Mac’s Dionysia Festival.” It’s a series of four plays that deal with the transition our country is experiencing, a people mired in cultural polarization. It also marks the Chicago premiere of this work by the prolific, New York-based actor, Taylor Max, who’s also a performance artist, director, producer, and singer-songwriter. The playwright, who prefers to be called “judy,” not as his name but as a gender pronoun, wrote this two-act play after seeing Steppenwolf’s 1997 production Broadway production of “Buried Child.” Motivated by Sam Shepard’s poetic examination of the broken and hidden parts of American culture, Mac’s black comedy made the New York Times’ Top Ten Best Plays of 2015. It’s now come full circle. Chicago audiences finally can experience this playwright’s curious examination of what most audiences will consider a bizarre, eccentric depiction of contemporary, lower middle-class family values.
Upon entering the Downstairs Theatre, theatergoers may delight in discovering a stage festooned with a sumptuous, sky-blue velvet act curtain, draped as if for the presentation of an American classic. The stage floor is even highlighted by old-fashioned oyster shell footlights. Then the actual stage setting, that’s been hidden behind the curtain, suddenly rolls out toward the audience…and it’s a total shock. The house depicted is in complete contrast to the previous elegance. Collette Pollard’s jaw-dropping scenic design, which is almost its own character, elicits applause and gasps of disbelief. It’s as if an episode of A&E’s reality show, “Hoarders,” has come to life on the Steppenwolf stage. The cramped kitchen/living room overflows with mountains of laundry, empty boxes, dirty cookware, old Christmas lights and tinsel, craft projects, a few pieces of worn-out furniture and a functioning portable AC unit. Framed kitsch covers up holes in the stuccoed walls. There’s barely room to sit, walk or even stand in this room.
Apparently Thomas Wolfe was correct when he wrote that You Can’t Go Home Again. At least, this is true for Isaac, the young protagonist who returns to his California home after serving three war-torn years in the service of his country. What he encounters, however, upon learning that the front door has been blocked, is that his boyhood home is a chaotic coop of clutter. Disappointed at not finding a party or any Welcome Home banners, Isaac must instead deal with his crazy family, all of whom are going through some kind of tragic transition. “Things change,” says his mother. Indeed they have.
Arnold, Isaac’s father, who suffered a stroke when he was fired from his job and replaced by a Chinese-American woman, is now mentally and physically disabled and unable to speak. Paige, Isaac’s mother, has rebelled against all the macho verbal, emotional and physical abuse that Arnold once heaped upon her. She’s accomplished this by emasculating her invalid husband, garishly painting his face with clown makeup and dressing him in adult diapers and a dirty nightgown. She barely keeps Arnold alive by feeding him homemade milkshakes laced with estrogen, and she squirts him with a water bottle whenever he misbehaves. Thus, Paige’s domestic rebellion—her refusal to cook, clean or do laundry—also keeps her once-bullying husband, now reduced to a childlike state, totally dependent upon her for survival.
Maxine, Isaac’s tomboy younger sister, is undergoing her own changes. She’s come to realize that she is really a he, and is taking male hormones as part of the lengthy process of transitioning into a teenage boy. Now called Max, and preferring nonspecific pronouns, like “ze,” instead of he or she, and “hir,” (pronounced “here”) instead of him or her, Max is being home-schooled by his mother. Because he’s also endured bullying, ze has no real friends. He only enjoys the cyber companionship he’s found on the internet. This allows Paige the opportunity to be Max’s educator, support system and to fully experience her son’s transformation into a transgender male.
Paige has found an opportunity to reinvent herself, following the decline of her tyrannical husband, her eldest son’s long absence and her youngest child’s desire to transition into a male. She’s no longer the victim, a defenseless, abused housewife and useless, out-of-the-loop mom. She’s a Tiger Mother and the matriarch, in full control, who now rules the home by her own rules. The character may come off as the antagonist of this play, but she’s merely a strong woman trying to survive change by finally taking the reins.
Under the astutely savage direction of Director Hallie Gordon, this well-cast production moves madly forward, pedal to the metal, and to its natural conclusion. Costumed by Jenny Mannis, with wig and hair design by Penny Lane Studios, this ensemble of actors operates as if one. Amy Morton leads the company as Paige. Her experience in leading roles of such dramas as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “August: Osage County” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” have properly groomed Ms. Morton for this fierce, new role. Through all of Paige’s bravado, lecturing and bullying there are moments when Ms. Morton quietly allows the audience to peer through those tiny chinks of sadness and vulnerability. While being the royal ruler of the roost, Ms. Morton still manages to steal our hearts in her struggle to adapt and survive.
Company member Francis Guinan, who has probably appeared on this stage more than any other actor, is heartbreaking as Arnold. There are a few moments when this gifted actor gets to show some of the dark side of this bullying patriarch; however, for most of the play, Arnold wanders around like a deranged child in a drug-induced stupor. Much admiration goes to this actor for his bravery, his gutsy willingness to appear so physically and emotionally naked. Here Guinan creates yet another memorable, heartrending character, in a long list of great roles.
Ty Olwin, so impressive in Steppenwolf’s TYA production of “Lord of the Flies,” as well as in Steep Theatre’s “Brilliant Adventures,” is outstanding as Isaac. On paper this character is merely reactive. Olwin skillfully fills in the blanks and creates an honest, fully-realized young man. His horror at the shocking changes he finds in his home and family are registered on this young actor’s face and in his manic approach toward righting the wrongs. The empathy he feels, both for his father and his new, younger brother, is both touching and tangible. Finally, forced to witness a grotesque shadow puppet show, performed by his family, Isaac gives up, realizing that he can no longer change what his life has become. He sees that he’s helpless in restoring the way things once were. Isaac may have been discharged from “the war,” but his battles will continue on the home front.
As Max, Em Grosland makes his Steppenwolf debut in a most auspicious role. This character seems to offer the most hope for this fictional family and, indeed, for an entire country in transition. Seeking online contact with others like hir, Max has instead wisely chosen to follow his own instincts. He’s given up on society, as we once knew it, finding real education in everyday life. Max hopes to one day join with other queergender anarchists at a commune in an unspecified locale, helping to create a brave new world of tolerance and understanding. But, until that time, Max will simply take it one day at a time. Grosland fully embodies all of these ideals and eventually touches Isaac’s heart.
While this isn’t your everyday, feel-good play, it’s an unusual, often hilarious black comedy about a dysfunctional family and a society in transition. Peopled with strange, wildly bugged-out characters roaming through unorthodox fragments of a story, this is a play brimming with the unexpected. The dialogue is sharp, realistic and graphically adult. It rapidly fires at the audience as if shot from a gatling gun. Characters often talk over the top of each other, but Hallie Gordon’s smart direction aims the focus where it’s needed. One thing is guaranteed: this production may provoke lots of post-show conversation and arguments, but it’s bound to stay with audiences long after the final curtain.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 29-August 20 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.