Leave it to Taylor Mac, the genderqueer phenomenon who created one of the most ambitious works performance art has ever produced — the 24-hour-long A 24-Decade History of Popular Music — to look back at the kitchen-sink drama via judy's 2014 play Hir, with a similar mix of disdain, hope, pity, horror, and humor. With just two plays this season, the other being Martyna Majok's bleak yet humorous immigrant drama Ironbound, Simpatico Theatre Company hit the topical jackpot.
All in the family
[Ed note: Mac uses the pronoun “judy,” which started as a sort-of joke but was just too good for any journalist to bypass, so I’m not going to kill the party here.]
Turning judy’s incisive eye toward the 21st-century nuclear family, Mac takes a pinch each of O’Neill, Albee, and Shepard — and never, ever softens for the sake of nostalgia. Judy certainly believes in the tenet that you can’t ever go home again, as Kevin Meehan’s Isaac — a dishonorably discharged young Marine returning from a three-year stint picking up body parts in Afghanistan for the military’s Mortuary Affairs unit — quickly discovers.
As it happens, that home is so strewn with dirty laundry and dishes that Isaac must enter through a rear patio door (set design by Christopher Haig). In his absence, his father Arnold (John Morrison), a tyrannical, abusive former plumber, suffered a stroke and now stumbles around the living room drooling in a pink dress, blonde wig, and garish makeup applied by Isaac’s mother, Paige (Marcia Saunders). Paige, now free of her husband’s oppression, has staged her own feminist revolution by refusing to clean, drugging Arnold daily with estrogen, working at an environmental nonprofit, and homeschooling her younger child, teenage Max (Eppchez!). Little sister Max is now Isaac’s brother, identifying as transmasculine and using hir pronouns. Some homecoming.
If that were it, if this were just a quirky family navigating a new dynamic, it would still be an interesting and funny twist on a timeworn genre. But that’s not it. Oddly, this play perhaps best represents the fears of both the white, working-class Trump voter and the vanishing middle-class liberal. What happens when the kind of man who learned a trade, got a job, and ruled his roost with an iron fist no longer finds a place in the world? What happens to feminists in a gender-free future? Is freedom even possible for someone like Max, whose own history contains so many confusing and painful messages?
Fierce and funny
Director Jarrod Markman plays act one for laughs, setting us up for the damage to come. And come it does — does it ever — but not in a Shakespearean bodies-littering-the-stage fashion. This damage goes deep and stays there. There’s much discussion of parts: those collected by Isaac after battle; a museum exhibition featuring Saint Theresa (but since parts of her were stolen, Paige explains, “they only show the tidbits”); and the pieces Max wants to restore, ignored or overlooked “hirstory,” such as the conjecture that the Mona Lisa might really depict Da Vinci dressed as a woman, a dangerously transgressive act.
What powers it all is the strength of this quartet of actors. Saunders whiplashes Paige from whimsy to ferocity, one moment gleefully explaining the new generation of pronouns, the next reducing her husband to whimpers with a look. Morrison gives a shockingly brave performance, humorous and horrible. Though Paige tells Isaac, “Don’t pity him, those that knew him know of his cruelty,” he’s so pathetic it’s inhuman not to. Meehan, who, perhaps not coincidentally, also appeared in InterAct’s production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, brings a determined force to Isaac, appointing himself man of the house where nobody asked for one.
Most playwrights whose work features a transgender character would make that person the fulcrum of the plot, but not Mac. Here, Max is just a confused kid looking for guidance among the wreckage. Eppchez!, with patchy peach fuzz on hir face, an ambiguously gendered physique, and gender-neutral clothing, gets enthusiastic but always holds an air of the slightly lost and frightened, like a puppy hoping to follow the right person home.
Isaac’s not that person. He made the mistake of going home again, a man in a place that needs no men. When his mother tells him, “It’s why we sent you, all the boys, to the wars to begin with,” you can’t help but see the factory-line assemblers, coal miners, steelworkers, all those who used to work with their hands and now hang out unemployed and aimless in neighborhoods like these, inside their parents’ houses. But coal’s not coming back, and people in this brave new world continue to follow a dying paradigm. Taylor Mac, it seems, believes the gender binary just might be to blame for at least part of the decline of the American dream; I think judy makes a pretty good case.
To hear Darnelle Radford's podcast interview with Eppchez!, click here.