Review: Hir (Steppenwolf Theatre)

| July 19, 2017

Francis Guinan stars as Arnold in Hir, Steppenwolf Theatre            



Written by Taylor Mac
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru Aug 20  |  tix: $20-$89  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


In Mac’s kitchen-sink drama, the meek shall inherit the earth


Em Grosland, Amy Morton, Ty Olwin and Francis Guinan star in Hir, Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf Theatre presents

Review by Catey Sullivan

Early on in Taylor Mac’s Hir, the playwright offers up a monologue from a woman who has spent much of her life being brutally abused by her husband. For years, Paige (Amy Morton) was cheated on, humiliated and beaten by Arnold (Francis Guinan). Three times, Paige wound up in the ER, after Arnold’s wrath left the couple’s youngest child, Max, beaten bloody.

Ty Olwin and Amy Morton star as Isaac and Paige in Hir, Steppenwolf TheatreThe source of Arnold’s rage? His own fragility. And his fear that someone was siphoning off the straight white man’s privilege he’d been swaddled in since birth. Mac’s monologue says it more powerfully than any description I could offer:

“It used to be you could be a mediocre straight white man and be guaranteed a certain amount of success. But now you actually have to prove yourself, “ says Paige. And as she continues, adopting the tone of a voiceover for a B-horror movie trailer, “Because now… the darkies have come. And the spics. And the queers. And those backstabbing bitches waiting to get at the mediocre straight white man the minute it becomes known he is barely lifting a finger but thinking he is lifting the world.”

Boom. Go ahead – read the last sentence of Paige’s declaration again. So shall the meek inherit the earth in Mac’s kitchen-sink drama.

At curtain up, Arnold’s days of all-powerful mediocrity are done. He’s had a stroke. He can no longer speak much, and seems to have the brain of a tiny child. Paige has dressed him in stained nightgowns and diapers. When Arnold tries to talk, she uses a water-filled spray bottle to blast him back into submission. To keep him docile, she force feeds him “shakey shakes” – active ingredient: Something akin to Thorazine. Paige has also stopped cleaning, cooking, paying the bills and pretty much everything else she did during her years as a dutiful housewife.

Amy Morton and Francis Guinan star as Paige and Arnold in Hir, Steppenwolf TheatreFrancis Guinan stars as Arnold in Hir, Steppenwolf Theatre Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin star as Arnold and Isaac in Hir, Steppenwolf TheatreAmy Morton and Francis Guinan star as Paige and Arnold in Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre

Emergency room visits or no, Max (Em Grosland) is also undertaking a radical change. Here’s Paige explaining it to her oldest son, Issac: “Little tomboy Maxine wouldn’t let her father stop her trajectory, so she gets herself some testosterone on the World Wide Web and starts to enlarge her clitoris.” Once a “she,” Max’s pronouns are now “ze” (rather than she/he) and “hir” (rather than her or his). The gender-neutral terms label Max as someone whose gender has broken free of the rigid binary that allows in “he” and “she” but nobody else.

The plot launches as Issac (Ty Olwin) returns from a tour with the Marines (one that did not end honorably), to find his childhood home – and the people in it – unrecognizable. Max is on “mones” and sprouting a beard. Arnold is painted like a sick clown and sporting a fright wig. And Paige? Well, Paige is reveling in her newfound power. Arnold’s stroke and the shift that followed were “like a baptism, only without the male dominated hegemonic paradigm,” Paige explains.

Issac is horrified. And, no doubt, so will many in the audience at the sight of the cringe-worthy humiliations visited on Arnold throughout Hir. Cringe and get over it: In Mac’s world, the days are numbered for the cis white men who remain stalwart in the belief that their complexion, orientation and gender renders them the rulers of their world. Spend your life treating women like shit, and your crown will be replaced by a urine-soaked nightie and a pair of adult diapers nobody bothers to change regularly.

Hir is intensely discomfiting, and not just because of the abuse heaped on helpless Arnold. Mac sets up a kitchen-sink family drama that evokes traditional icons of the genre: The physicality, the tone and the language set you up for a Sam Shepard kind of experience. And then Mac blows everything up, lobbing a landmine into society’s rules of gender and masculinity. The impact is shocking, revelatory and extremely funny (albeit the kind of funny where you’re constantly wondering whether laughter is at all appropriate.)

Director Hallie Gordon keeps the pace and the energy levels on blast throughout. Mac’s script and plot is over-the-top in many respects. It has to be: You can’t blow up rules that have been in place for millennia by being subtle and mannerly. Hir requires a director who can find the honesty in the antics, lest the show become a cartoon full of caricatures of whacked out losers. Take, for example, the story of Issac’s dishonorable discharge. He was caught blowing methamphetamine into his anus, a two-person effort that could easily turn into a whacky grotesquerie. Gordon finds a seed of shattered emotional truth (as well as the inescapable comedy) in the story – as she does in even the most extreme elements of Hir.

Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin star as Arnold and Isaac in Hir Steppenwolf TheatreAmy Morton and Ty Olwin star as Paige and Isaac in Hir, Steppenwolf Theatre Amy Morton and Em Grosland star as Paige and Max in Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf’s cast is an explosion of talent. As Paige, Morton is both a monster and profoundly understandable. Most women might not go to the extremes Paige does, but they’ll understand why she does. Listen for her final monologue – it’s a devastating and crystalline synthesis of the myriad of complex issues Hir embraces (and then hurls at the audience.)

Guinan’s Arnold is deeply disturbing. In watching Paige bash and berate someone so helpless, you’ll start to feel a twinge of uneasy complicity. It’s like watching a kitten being tortured. Surely, someone should stop this cruelty. And then the knotty moral complexity kicks in: Nobody stopped Arnold from dishing out his brand of cruelty. Ever.

Grosland’s Max is smart, angry and still very much an adolescent with all the mood swings and shoulder chips that accompany that turbulent stage of life. Ze’s dreams of forsaking home and moving to a radical anarchist commune actually parallel the ballerina fantasies marketed at little girls. In hir dreams, ze finds refuge and beauty and hope for a glorious future.

Olwin’s Issac creates a powerful embodiment of the old guard gender roles. He’s a Marine, and meth-up-the-butt-or-no, he’s determined to call Paige to heel and restore the respect and deference he believes his father deserves.

There’s a wordless, riveting power-struggle between Issac and Paige involving an air conditioner that feels like a shoot-out-at-the-OK-corral, only the stakes are the traditional gender paradigm rather than whiskey or women. As with so much of Hir, it’s a scene that is simultaneously funny and layered with meaning that goes far deeper than the surface actions might imply.

Scenic designer Collette Pollard has created a household whose disarray is actually anxiety-inducing. There’s chaos and trouble and pain layered into the heaps of old laundry and bowls of half-eaten food. And amid all of it, there is a revolution. It’s a revolution that is messy, flawed, self-centered and cruel. But make no mistake. It’s there. And Mac will have you believing that it’s coming for all of us.

Rating: ★★★½

Hir continues through August 20th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays & Sundays 3pm & 7:30pm.  Tickets are $20-$89, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours, includes a 15-minute intermission. See production program here.)

Amy Morton and Em Grosland star as Paige and Max in Hir, Steppenwolf Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Francis Guinan (Arnold), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac), Em Grosland (Max), Jennifer Engstrom (u/s Paige), Theo Germaine (u/s Max), Adam Marcantoni (u/s Isaac), Stephen Walker (u/s Arnold)

behind the scenes

Hallie Gordon (director), Collette Pollard (scenic design), Jenny Mannis (costume design), Ann G. Wrightson (lighting design), Richard Woodbury (sound design, original music), Gigi Buffington (company vocal coach), JC Clementz (casting director), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager),  Mary Hungerford (assistant stage manager), Denise Yvette Serna (asst. director), Alex Stevens (asst. lighting design), Lauren Katz (asst. dramaturgy), Matt Hawkins (fight choreography), Penny Lane Studios (wig and hair design), Jacob Brown, Eric Engelson, Kevin Lynch, Mark Vinson (additional carpentry), Lacie Hexom (additional props), Vanessa Rundle (running crew), David Masnato (banjo instructor), Colleen Schuldeis (stage management apprentice), Rebecca Adelsheim, Rebekah Camm, Lavina Jadhwani, Derek Matson, Derek McPhatter, Leean Torske (audience engagement associates), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Ty Olwin and Amy Morton star as Isaac and Paige in Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: 2017 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Steppenwolf

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Delicious White Boy says:

    Once again I feel the need to commend this reviewer (and this publication)for actually giving enough information about a show to allow the reader to decide whether he or she (yes, he or she) wants to see it, rather than (as so many publications do) simply say how great it is.

    And once again I feel the need to thank this reviewer (and this publication)for keeping me from wasting my time and money on a ultra-PC piece of crap.

    I hope when the day comes that no American — whether male, female, or other or white, black, or other — has any power, people will look back at the ignorance and anti-white male bigotry of this play as the point in history as when people — in the name of being PC — turned their back on the last clear chance to save our country.