Friday, May 19, 2017

Phoenix Theatre opens 'Hir,' a family drama of rough transitions

It's right up there with "Call me Ishmael" as the most famous opening sentence in fiction: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

The second half of that sentence, with which Tolstoy gets "Anna Karenina" started, could be underlined, highlighted and sprinkled with glitter in the case of Taylor Mac's "Hir," which opened Thursday night in a Phoenix Theatre production.

Paige gets a command performance from burgeoning banjoist Max.
This family of four is uniquely unhappy, it's fair to say, and the two-act drama lays bare its wrenching sorrows, then raises welts from them. The resolution at the end is a paradigm shift, to use one of matriarch Paige's favorite expressions — a jolt that wraps up one phase of the household's existence with no promise of a transition to happiness.

The transition theme is focused on the character of Max, who is well on the way from being Paige and Arnold's daughter to being their younger son. Xie (to use the nominative form of the gender-neutral pronoun; "hir" is the objective form) is a bright teenage advocate of transgender rights, whose home-schooling provides at least as much opportunity to educate hir mother as the other way around. Educating dad is out of the question: Arnold,  disabled by a stroke,  has been forcibly infantilized by Paige in revenge for his brutal control over the family when he was healthy.

First view of Arnold as clown in gown.
Paige has revolted against all forms of dutiful housewifery. The place to which dishonorably discharged son Isaac returns is a shocking mess; his sense that he will reconnect to something he can call home is challenged at every turn by the autocracy Paige has established. She imagines it as a liberation, but it becomes clear this caged bird has used her husband's disability simply to construct a new cage for three damaged people. His military service sabotaged by drug use, Isaac has come back from a tour of duty in one of the most grisly assignments: gathering comrades' body parts from the battlefield for identifying, packaging, and repatriation.

The playwright piles on the roadblocks toward normality somewhat. The "starter" home in which the action takes place was built on a landfill decades ago. The family's failure ever to move can be laid at Arnold's feet, which Paige is never hesitant to do. The playgoer cannot expect to encounter much relief from the family's circumstances, all of which have the implacability of French existentialism about them. For all of the indelibly American identity of the characters, "Hir" is like a 21st-century bad dream of Jean-Paul Sartre. It's often sublimely witty, if you like your wit etched in acid. But the limitations that inevitably accompany being "condemned to freedom" bedevil each of the four in starkly individualized ways.

Mark Routhier directs with a gimlet-eyed attention to detail, and draws from his cast consistent energy in the characters'  personal struggles to resist choking constraints. As Arnold, Brad Griffith struggles to express himself and control his movements in garbled attempts at assertion. The character's manifold humiliations are rendered with such exacting poignancy you can almost forgive him for being the monster he once was. Despite Arnold's disability, that era remains a raw family wound. "We will not rewrite his history with pity," Paige says with chilling finality at one point.

Jen Johansen's vocal and physical virtuosity is pushed to the extreme in this role. Paige seeks to overlay with words her control of the household, against which Max pushes back more subtly than Isaac, who effortfully tries to surmount his PTSD while loosening Paige's grip on family power. On opening night, Johansen seemed to be mastering as much verbiage as Hamlet, the traditional measure of profuse speech in world drama. She was relentless as the aggressively deluded defender of her regime and her desperate identification with the world's wider culture, a devotion that's the source of much of "Hir"'s comedy. The oxymoronic power of the phrase "condemned to freedom" was movingly pronounced in Johansen's performance.

Resisting his control freak mother, Isaac removes dad's clown makeup.
Ben Schuetz's strident, conflicted Isaac— physically pop-eyed and edgy — was a masterpiece of rage and an aggrieved sense of justice. Ariel Laukins presented as Max an oddly, but aptly, grounded interpretation of the battle to make identity in the world match identity at the most deeply felt level. It's no wonder that hir psychological tenderness and astuteness combine to justify the play's being titled after its transgender character.

The production team has created a setting that physically represents the family chaos. You don't have to be a neatness freak to find the clutter a bit maddening before a line is spoken. The sight sets you up for a disturbing experience. The very walls have a glaringly bland, used and abused look; the furnishings are the subject of careless manipulation, control spats, and outbursts of destructive behavior.  The lighting is oppressive, giving the milieu a closed-in feeling.

As much as I want to recommend this production, I have to admit that the intermission was more welcome than intermissions usually are. You won't mind the chance to catch your breath. And by the end, "Hir" is likely to fortify your belief in the survival of families, even when the outcome is doubtful in particular unhappy cases — like this unique one.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]