Chicago Theatre Review
Life Does Go On
You Got Older – Steppenwolf Theatre
Mae has returned from Minneapolis to her Seattle area home to take care of Dad. Her father is recovering from surgery for throat cancer and he’s about to undergo yet another procedure. While spending some quality time with her father, viewing the peppers in his garden and contemplating an evening around the new fire pit, Mae is bunking in her sister’s old room. She admits to herself that she’s sexually frustrated, not having been touched for well over a month. In response to Mae’s urges, she conjures up a fantasy figure, a Cowboy, who continually appears through a howling snowstorm to have his way with her.
Beside helping her father deal with his illness, Mae’s dealing with her own problems. She’s lost her job and is coping with being dumped from a long-term relationship. One evening, while taking a well-deserved break from her dad, Mae chances to run into Mac, an old school acquaintance. Sitting at a local dive she tells him, “This dude who was, like, the love of my life, dumped me. He was also my boss…so he fired me.” She confesses she’s horny and would love to have sex with him, but reveals that her body is covered in a huge rash. Mac admits to Mae that, among other things, such a condition is actually a kinky turn-on.
Later, following her Dad’s next gruesome procedure, Mae and her siblings gather at his hospital bedside. There the audience comes to know her brother Matthew and her two sisters, Hannah and Jenny. The conversation is decidedly quirky, turning to a discussion of their “family smell,” a discussion about penis size preferences and how they all miss engaging in one of their unusual family dance parties. It’s a humorous scene, but, like many other moments in this quirky play, doesn’t really advance the plot very much.
And that’s the problem with Clare Barron’s script: it simply feels too long, like a stream of conscious. At more than two-hours in length, the playwright is obviously striving to present an honest, contemporary slice of life. This is based upon her own, personal experiences. But there are scenes, like when Dad plays his “family theme song” on a portable tape recorder, that simply go on too long. The song’s not clearly audible and Dad and Mae just sit at the table and listen to it for several minutes. Nothing much happens, either during or afterwards. There are other scenes like this in Ms. Barron’s comic drama that go on forever with little consequence. One feels that, with some judicious cutting, this play could be more succinct and effective if edited down to a ninety-minute one-act.
There’s certainly no fault in Jonathan Berry’s heartfelt direction. He guides his cast through this dramedy with precision, allowing each actor’s natural instincts to rise to the occasion. The cast is terrific. Caroline Neff, always a talent in any role she plays, is candid and comfortably relaxed as Mae. She again brings the same honesty and verve that audiences have enjoyed from her in “The Flick” and “Airline Highway.” Francis Guinan is, as always, a portrait of excellence. His perfect portrayal of a man who’s simply accepted everything that life throws at him is a textbook example of great acting. It would be hard to imagine any other actor in this restrained, amiable role.
As Mae’s siblings, Audrey Francis, so exciting in Steppenwolf’s “The Fundamentals” and “Between Riverside and Crazy,” creates Hannah, the married sister who likes to always be in charge. She’s the yin to Mae’s yang in this family dynamic. As Jenny, the youngest sibling, Emoy Gavino is a delight. Her bubbly innocence and enthusiasm is lovingly enjoyed and approved of by her brother and sisters. David Lind is Matthew, the typical younger brother, who says and does whatever he can to survive among his three sisters.
Gabriel Ruiz is stalwart and sexually stirring as Mae’s fantasy figure Cowboy. As he appears out of the darkness, with snow blowing about, the Cowboy carries a dangerous presence while offering temptation and romance for Mae. As Mac, the schoolmate Mae meets in a bar, Glenn Davis is very good. He creates an awkward, humorous young man who would just like to get it on with this pretty lady, applying soothing salve to her rash and crawling in and out of her window for a romantic tryst that falls flat. Both actors provide some comic relief to what might seem like an otherwise dramatic downer of a story.
Meghan Raham’s scenic design is sparse, but effective, with its many moving parts. Her set is dominated by a swath of grass, a garden, a fire pit and a vast, wooden fence, that runs the width of the stage. The scene is dotted with giant tree trunks and the vast, open sky. As needed, a small bedroom set, a bar, a hospital room and a dining area slide on and off the stage. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s thrilling, moving projects enhance this simple setting, providing rain, snow, the Northern Lights and a herd of deer, seen in silhouette outside the house. Intimacy choreography is offered by Sasha Smith, natural sound and original music is provided, courtesy of Matt Chapman, and the whole production is moodily lit by Marcus Doshi.
Clare Barron’s often bizarrely comic, autobiographical drama is sobering, yet frank and funny. It’s a naturalistic view at how one family copes with all the things that life throws at us: parental relationships, sibling rivalry, illness, romance, career, future plans and even death. But in the end, Barron tells us that, in spite of everything, life does go on. Although the script feels a little too long in spots, Jonathan Berry’s skillfully guided production features some pretty fantastic performances, the real hallmark of every Steppenwolf production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 25-March 11 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Steppenwolf box office, by calling the theatre 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.