Review: HIR at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: HIR at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Taylor Mac’s HIR, now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf under the direction of Hallie Gordon, proves itself to be a complete whirlwind from the beginning. Collette Pollard’s strikingly realistic living room/kitchen set is in a tornado-like state when the curtain comes up at the top of the play, with heaps of clothes scattered around, a large tower of miscellaneous household appliances and craft supplies barring the front door, and a general lack of discernible counter and floor space anywhere. This state of disarray echoes the chaotic state of the dysfunctional family at the center of HIR: order has gone entirely by the wayside. Paige (Amy Morton, a commanding spitfire from the start) resides in this mess of a house with her transgender son Max (an earnest and likable Em Grosland) and her husband Arnold, who is deeply mentally incapacitated as a result of a severe stroke (Fran Guinan in a shocking and haunting performance). When Paige and Arnold’s eldest son Isaac (Ty Olwin) arrives home from war, he finds a home and family that he no longer recognizes.

And this is what the playwright does so brilliantly in the dark and often fiercely funny HIR: Mac presents us with a family who has created a (dis)order all their own. And by bringing Isaac—simultaneously member and outsider of this unit—into the fold, Mac gives the audience a conduit through which to observe the chaos unfolding. Though Isaac, of course, comes into the play with his own issues. After three years of cleaning up body parts in a war zone, he suffers from PTSD (which Olwin portrays ferociously). And thus, Mac creates a multi-layered, intense family dynamic and HIR has so many emotional turns as to create whiplash for both Isaac and the viewer. It’s effective in this briskly-paced two-hour play that never allows audiences to see exactly where it’s going. And in a moment in which Isaac craves the order and comforts of home (as well might audiences), Mac is relentless.

While HIR is about the dynamic of the family as a whole, the play’s title derives from a gender neutral pronoun that Max uses in place of “his/her.” Paige, who is relieved to out from under the thumb of the physically and verbally abusive Arnold after his stroke—is ready to embrace this “paradigm shift” among others in the household. Because Isaac is unfamiliar with his brother’s transition and with these gender neutral pronouns until he arrives home, Mac also uses this as an opportunity to teach audiences. But this never feels didactic because it makes complete dramaturgical sense. Though Paige’s decision to emasculate her husband, ignore his needs, and leave the house in a state of vengeful disaster may seem questionable, her desire to understand Max’s identity seems earnest and may give audiences new insight.

HIR is unabashedly Mac’s take on the theatrical tradition of the American family drama. It’s a genre with which audiences may be familiar, but the resulting work is unique. HIR seems to lash out at every corner as the characters keep us guessing, and this brashness is reflected in Jenny Mannis’s bright and loud costumes that blend well with Pollard’s set. This is a play that demands to be seen, even as it offers no clear answers as Paige, Arnold, Max, and Isaac spiral further and further into a state of antagonism and impeding disaster. HIR provides an unnerving theatrical ride for which it’s well worth buckling up.

HIR plays through August 20 in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted. Tickets are $20-$89. Visit for more information and to buy tickets.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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