Hir: judy’s world.
I was very excited to see Steppenwolf’s production of Taylor Mac’s Hir having missed the production in NYC with Kristine Nielsen. I have to admit I knew very little about this show but was sold with the possibility of seeing Amy Morton on stage again. I had fallen in love with her performances in Betrayal at Steppenwolf and than August Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf on Broadway. I am so happy to have seen this incredible play and witnessed these dynamic performances. judy’s (Mac’s preferred personal pronoun starting always with a lower case ‘j’) play explores extremely dark facets of the American family and forces the characters to either embrace the future and transform or to stay trapped in the pain of the past and perish. I had expected this to be a comedy, and although it had many humorous moments that rose out of the pain, it is a profound and satisfying play that attempts to educate, challenge and quite possibly, change us in the audience.
judy was inspired to write this “kitchen sink drama” after seeing Steppenwolf’s production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and judy admits that judy had Shepard and Steppenwolf on judy’s mind. I am fascinated by judy’s idea of “absurd realism” which is, as I understand it, if we exist in a physical space/place that becomes more and more extreme, we will naturally respond in a more absurd way. As the world we live in becomes a more extreme landscape, it is going to drive us crazy but we will not really understand the absurdity as we are literally responding to what is right in front of us and we adapt to it so easily. I am also drawn to judy’s question, what if the metaphor for America was not the “prodigal son” but the “transgender kid” instead? Through the play, I saw America was born with one identity on the outside but inside, America feels this identity no longer represents all the potential and possibilities and we must transition to a new identity, which can realize its full potential. But as with everything, transformation is a difficult and painful journey.
Amy Morton as the mother, Paige, gave an incredible performance and I may add that she performed with a boot on her ankle from an injury. She deeply understands both the weight of her past abusive marriage and the new life with her transgender son, Max. She is at all times believable in her love for her children, her revenge on her abusive husband and her passion for a second chance at life. Francis Guinan as the father, Arnold, is amazing as a stroke survivor, with very little language, and simply existing/expressing in sounds, grunts and groans. His character was the abusive white man, whose life of privilege crumbled all around him and the more he lost, the more he abused his wife, son and daughter. After having the stroke, Paige is in command and everything has changed. Ty Olwin as the prodigal son, Isaac, has returned after three years of war in the Middle East and suffering from PTSD. Isaac was the character I most identified with in the beginning of the play and Ty was great at processing the insanity of this household, when all he really expected was a “welcome home” sign. After Isaac has seen the revenge his mother has taken out on his father, he then has to understand that his sister Maxine is now his brother, Max. Em Grosland, a non-binary trans male actor, as Max is the only light in this household. Em’s incredible energy and ownership of this character made hir (Max’s preferred pronoun) the strong center of the family. I never once doubted that even if everyone else ends up in the gutter, Max would help create a new world and heal from the dysfunction.
The conflict of the play exists mainly between Paige and Isaac. As Paige wants desperately to break with the past and embrace chaos, Isaac craves a normal life and wants to create order, home and family. Isaac feels he should take care of his ailing, abusive father where Paige wants her ailing abusive husband to suffer. They both try to manipulate Max to win their case but we soon find that Max flows easily between hir mother and bother. As Paige and Isaac try to appeal to their concept of hir, we understand that once you are free of definition, Hir is not limited by a single definition but is free to embrace all hir complexity.