What you think you know—about gender, family dynamics or Steppenwolf—is up for debate in Taylor Mac’s charming and challenging work.
“Ze wants you to say ze or hir as if this had been part of your regular speaking vocabulary your entire life,” mother Paige (Amy Morton) instructs Isaac (Ty Olwin) about his younger brother, Max (Em Grosland). When Isaac deployed with the Marines three years earlier, Max was tomboyish Maxine. Now Isaac—pointedly nicknamed “I”—has returned, dishonorably discharged and with nausea-inducing PTSD, to find Max is transitioning, their father Arnold (Francis Guinan) has had a stroke and Paige is keeping her formerly abusive husband in a medically induced, emasculated haze, renouncing normative chores like laundry and cleaning and generally, manically embracing chaos. Pronouns aren’t the only new thing Isaac needs to get used to fast.
Taylor Mac, the baroque performance artist and writer, supposedly began writing Hir right after seeing Steppenwolf’s production of Buried Child when it transferred to Broadway. It’s hard to imagine Mac sitting down to work on this piece, with its up-to-the-minute commentary on gender, family dynamics, economics and war, in 1996. But you can see the bones of Sam Shepard in Mac’s prodigal-son plot, along with hints of Albee and Pinter. The gleeful radicalism, on the other hand, is pure Mac, though as in the writer’s Walk Across America for Mother Earth, Mac has admonitions for all sides. Morton is an off-kilter thriller, reveling in the new confusion and wielding the language of wokeness like a weapon, but all four cast members go to unexpected and juicy places in Hallie Gordon’s carefully unkempt production. Capping a Steppenwolf season that’s felt like the beginnings of a reinvention, it calls for Paige’s exultant new catch phrase: “Paradigm shiiiiiift!”
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Taylor Mac. Directed by Hallie Gordon. With Amy Morton, Ty Olwin, Em Grosland, Francis Guinan. Running time: 1hr 50mins; one intermission.