Teresa Willis, Michael J. Drury, Megan Adair, & Neil Brewer in Hir. Photo by Richard McGrew.
By Taylor Mac
Directed by Tony Prince
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The dysfunctional family drama has long been a staple in American theatre, only the particulars of the dysfunction change to reflect the times. In Taylor Mac’s Hir, Isaac Connor (Neil Brewer) is a Marine discharged from active duty collecting dead bodies from a war zone, returns to his California home to find his mother, Paige (Teresa Willis). has abandoned all sense of order and has clothes, food, and other life detritus strewn around the house. His stroke victim father, Arnold (Michael Drury) sits in a house dress and rainbow clown wig behaving like a toddler, and his sister, MAx (Megan Adair) is trans gender, preferring to be addressed as “hir” (rhymes with here) or “Zee.” For a soldier used to the severe discipline of the military, the chaos is nearly intolerable.
Isaac vomits habitually, so he is already not in very good shape, and his reaction to the state of his family prompts the rest of the action of the story. He desperately needs order and stability in his life, but all of his efforts to accomplish this are thwarted so dramatically by Paige, leading to an epic confrontation in the play’s climax that is draining for cast and audience.
Playwright Mac’s text is rich and complex, and I wasn’t certain how I felt about Hir until the final moments had played out. None of these characters are whole, and Paige’s manic approach to redefining their lives is frustrating, even as a reaction the history of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the pre-stroke Arnold. Her deliberate emasculation of Arnold may serve as a justifiable revenge in her fevered mind, but it is certainly cruel and inhumane. When left alone with Isaac, the son begins to draw lucidity and expression of pain and suffering from the father that is heartbreaking.
We eventually discover that Isaac’s PTSD and other problems that led to his dishonorable discharge, Arnold’s condition is pitiful, and Paige is clearly unhinged, so one of the surprising, and therefore most provocative, ideas discovered here might be what to make of Max’s transition. It is a testament to the writing that the character comes closest to being whole, or at least on a certain path to relative wholeness. Part of the reason might be that, after some understandable confusion about his sibling’s status, Isaac accepts hir and even begins to bond to some degree. Which is not to say Max doesn’t struggle with the same issues as the rest of the family, but Mac is wise enough to grant the character the same dignity of human contradiction as the other characters and never lets Max become idealized.
The energy in the performance seemed pitched a little high in the early scenes, particularly Teresa Willis’s hyper kinetic turn as Paige, but it makes sense as an expression of the desperation and self-conscious reach for control that defines this character. Michael Drury’s work starts off as gimmicky, but broadens in the crucial scenes alone with the son, after which Arnold’s return to infantilism seems more tragic. Neil Brewer is well cast as Isaac, a character which allows him to bring his knack for neurotic rage to full flower. Megan Adair has perhaps the largest challenge here, playing a character in conflict about her location in life, and she manages to make Max the most balanced character, commanding the stage with fluid movement and quicksilver emotional transitions.
Eric Allgeier’s fully realized set design makes an important contribution here, a deliberately generic domicile that undercuts the sentimentality of Isaac’s idea of returning home, and Shane Estes’ costumes, Keith Kimmel’s lighting, and Richard McGrew’s sound work in concert to build dimension in the piece.
Hir feels like a very important contemporary play about identity, one that takes the full measure of how quickly the ground has been shifting under American society in recent years. Director Tony Prince stages the play with a deep understanding of the material and an appreciation for its provocative nature.
August 31 – September 10, 2017
The Liminal Playhouse
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
For tickets go to: theliminalplayhouse.org
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com