Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Amy Morton and Francis Guinan. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Bec Willett
Taylor Mac credits the seed of inspiration for HIR to the 1997 Steppenwolf production of Sam Shepard’s BURIED CHILD. Coming full circle, HIR is now playing at Steppenwolf. The leap is not that far; just as Shepard’s work is an indicting statement on the modern American family of his time, Steppenwolf’s HIR is most certainly a reflection of Mac’s.
Paige is a mother released from a jail of domesticity after her abusive husband Arnold suffered a stroke, rendering him impotent to maintain the patriarchal control over the house he once had. Flailing to embody the liberal identity she eagerly desires, her trans son Max is parenting her into the progressive mindset. It is to this house that Isaac, the eldest son returns from war, dishonorably discharged due to drug use. But this is not the home he expects or accepts – no longer is a place of patriarchal control and order, but of freedom and chaos.
Isaac may be the new representative of patriarchal heteronormativity in the house but the lines in this war aren’t always obvious, and these actors handle this nuanced journey with sensitivity and purpose. All four of them – Em Grosland, Francis Guinan, Amy Morton and Ty Olwin – form a tightly knit ensemble, fearlessly convincing us that they are terrible people and poking us into conceding that our moral compass and ethical lines we think we draw aren’t that clear cut after all.
One of many memorable moments is when Isaac sits with his now intellectually inhibited father to tell him what a man is – to remind him how to be a man: to abuse his family, to take up space, to control. The potency of this moment is not only in the conversation itself, but in the underlying acknowledgment that this conversation must also have happened years earlier, but with the roles reversed. Whereas Guinan’s Arnold still maintains the same vigor and passion for patriarchal control he once had, his lack of pants now renders this rhetoric hollow. Isaac’s desire for the normalcy of the past is similarly passionate, but his words hit differently, a self-awareness budding of how damaging these ideas actually are. After all, if his father no longer effectively functions in the patriarchy, what does that mean for his own identity? It’s an emotionally complex moment that is pivotal to the play – and Guinan and Olwin nail it.
Albeit superbly executed, Collette Pollard’s scenic design was as expected for a Steppenwolf show: primarily a realistically constructed kitchen-sink set. However, the addition of a pristine theatrical curtain and footlights were an interesting touch, always slightly distancing the audience from the action, giving space to consider: is that us? Jenny Mannis’ costume design was similarly realistic but with some clever humor in specific articles such as a particularly delightful bedazzled cat sweater that hint at the spiteful tension between Paige and Arnold as competing matriarch and patriarch.
Steppenwolf’s HIR asks lots of questions – not as loud statements but as surreptitious ideas that creep into socialized structures of our brains and remind us how constructed our sense of gender and family really are.