Two staples of American drama have been the “kitchen-sink play,” which feature small casts and meticulously detailed, usually lower-middle class, settings, and what I’ll call “family reunion plays,” in which the return of a family member opens festering wounds. (The two styles of drama can easily overlap.) Usually these plays have focused on white, “mainstream,” families.
In recent years, a small counter-movement has emerged of theater artists outside the aesthetic and cultural mainstream critiquing these genres by writing naturalistic plays about white families. Major examples have been Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate, and Taylor Mac’s Hir. (Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue might count as well.) Of these plays, Hir be the most full-frontal attack on the traditional values of the “family drama.” Mac, who uses “judy” as a personal pronoun, usually performs in radiant drag, and is best-known for work that is elaborately theatrical and epically long, such as The Lily’s Revenge and A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: A Radical Fairy Realness Ritual (co-created with Matt Ray), which won the 2017 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Hir is a smaller piece, but more accessible to mainstream audiences, and Simpatico Theatre has given us an intelligent and moving production under Jarrod Markman’s direction.
In an interview with playwright Lisa Kron, Mac said he wrote the play as “a eulogy for the kitchen-sink drama, as a metaphor for old world orders that aren’t working anymore.” The setting is the living room and kitchen of a suburban tract home in “Central Valley California or similar” (Taylor Mac grew up in Stockton, CA). In Christopher Haig’s setting, the kitchen sink is appropriately located dead-center. Isaac (Kevin Meehan), a former Mortuary Affairs specialist serving with the Marines in Afghanistan, has returned home after three years. Isaac has received a dishonorable discharge for using crystal meth – but these details are subsidiary to the story, because what has happened on the homefront in his absence is more momentous.
His abusive father Arnold (John Morrison) has suffered a stroke, and his mother Paige (Marcia Saunders) has staged a full-scale revolt against the patriarchy, including allowing the house to descend into shambles. The front door is blocked by garbage. “We were getting rid of things and stopped caring,” Paige says. Clean laundry is strewn around the space, books are stored in the kitchen cabinet: “We don’t do places anymore… We don’t do order.” Arnold is being fed estrogen along with his meds; his face is made up like a drag queen’s, he’s dressed in a pink nightgown, and sleeps in a cardboard box in the living room. Even more shocking for Isaac: his beloved tomboy sister Maxine is now Max (played by Eppchez!), a sullen, broody transmale whose preferred pronouns are “ze” and “hir” – hence the title. (Mac calls for the role to be played by a transsexual actor born female.)
The play starts off as wild farce. For Paige, the new order is paradise. For Isaac, it’s hell. Arnold is basically a vegetable, and Max is still an alienated adolescent, dreaming of escaping to a radical fairy commune ze’s learned about on the internet, where ze hopes to meet the sissy of hir dreams. But the play goes places richer and stranger. I don’t want to give a detailed plot synopsis, but Hir presents a portrait of the costs of change, with sentimentality and no answers. Even more than when I saw the Playwrights Horizons production eighteen months ago, this comes across as an important play for our moment in American history.
Max is the most sympathetic character, but hir transsexual status doesn’t convey any special virtues on hir. As ze says to Isaac at one point, “Gender isn’t radical, it isn’t even progressive. It’s just an everyday occurrence.” Eppchez! presents Max’s adolescent awkwardness with grace and sensitivity.
Meehan likewise creates an Isaac whose motives are always understandable, and always come from the character rather than the plot’s needs. Arnold is a character who, by everyone’s description, seems to have been a monster before his stroke, and who is defined onstage by Paige’s attempts to strip him of all dignity in revenge for who he was then, yet John Morrison’s portrayal always maintains an odd dignity.
As Paige, Saunders delivers the strongest performance I have seen from this veteran actress. Her performance suggests that Paige is a new iconic role in the American theater, a Medea or Hecuba for the twenty-first century. Hir is a major new American drama, and this is a fine production, but Saunders’ performance alone would make it worth seeing.
In a play like Hir, the director’s task is often to create the illusion that the stage event is just happening. Director Markman has created a fine balance of tone, pace, and acting which supports both Taylor Mac’s script and the actors’ work excellently. Leone Lindsay’s costumes are excellent, and Alessandra Docherty and Scott McMaster provide lighting and props that support the production well.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission.