Hir, a black comedy by the theater world’s current enfant terrible, Taylor Mac, opened Feb. 9 2018, at Salt Lake Acting Company with a punch to the gut. When it was all over, there was a silent stunned sucking of air from the room. We had, after all, had just been belted in the bread basket by four of Salt Lake’s finest actors, and we didn’t even see it coming.
I mean, it’s funny right? Hir is expertly staged like a multi-cam Chuck Lorre sitcom. So much so you can practically hear the laugh track. We open on a living room in sunny shambles, a hoarder-level mess, sure, but a mess with whimsy. A batty suburban mother, Paige Conner (Christy Summerhays), is finding new joy in life after her Archie Bunker-style husband, Arnold Conner (Richard Scott) is debilitated by a stroke. Her teenager (Max Conners), is in transition and is rebelling in full “eat my shorts” mode and her oldest son (Issac Conner) has just returned from war and tries to keep the family together. Meet the Conners! is brought to you by Xanax.
For all the yucks (and there are plenty; this is a darkly funny piece) the jokes are on us. When Issac pukes in the sink, he’s puking because his headspace has been mangled in the wreck of a childhood in this home, three years of cleaning up body parts on the battlefield and a meth habit. When Max rages and stomps its because ze (the pronoun Max self-applies) has no idea how to be a man and instead becomes a dangerous caricature of manly self-righteousness. When Paige flits from interest to interest like any suburban dilettante, there is a mean edge to her hobbies, backed with grim determination to cover over everything, everything of her life before. And what’s really not funny is sitting on the floor, as the play opens, we find Arnold is slumped in front of the couch like a worn out clown doll. No matter how much indignity Paige heaps upon him, he remains a simmering menace.
When the action begins, we learn that Paige and Max’s lives have been spinning at high rotation. They are both redefining themselves dramatically by leaping to every notion that comes through their newly woke minds. Paige emasculates Arnold (dressing him in housecoats, wacky wigs, garish makeup and feeds him estrogen) and Max en-masculates hirself pondering over gendered pronouns for what they are becoming, landing on the play’s title “hir” (pronounced like “here”). Issac comes home from war and tries to bring order, specifically his father’s order, back to the home. And thus, Issac becomes the able body that Arnold has lost, allowing the drooling patriarch to reclaim his place.
There is naturally a place for Taylor Mac to play with a discussion about gender roles and the language around them but the play doesn’t preach. I was often surprised when the dialogue went to the edge of dogma and then pivoted into new and interesting territory. This is not an LGBT play, after all, it is a play about family, whatever that form takes. We’re all finding our way around issues of gender, none more so than Liggera Edmonds-Allen, a talented actor. Ellen Fagg Weist’s preview posits that Edmonds-Allen is the first trans actor to play a trans character on a Utah stage. Besides the boundary breaking, Edmonds-Allen is excellent in a role that could easily be shrill and thin. Teen-agers are insufferable sure but Edmonds-Allen manages to round Max out with vulnerability, uncertainty and power.
Archer’s Issac is the play’s pivot point. Everything balances on his performance, he holds the center well. At first, like much about this play, he is comical, his incredulous at everything his mother and Max have been up to, is basically a human spit take but his eye-rolling gets physical as he sets off the play’s breathtaking conclusion.
Scott’s Arnold, is more than just set dressing, although he starts that way in the opening scene, we hardly notice him amid the piles of Max and Paige’s manic meltdown. It’s tough work to play a disabled character without resorting to generic spastic stereotypes and Scott has clearly done his research on stroke victims. While Arnold is often a punchline, he doesn’t let his Arnold take it lying down. Underneath the lolling visage lies a monster, and Scott hides if from us slyly until we too are trapped.
Finally, once again we have Christy Summerhays. I became an ardent fan after her role in Plan B’s brilliant Virtue last year. She is masterful. She plays all of Paige’s brittle edges with a wide range that allows us to really understand her rage, anger and sadness. Basically, she takes us by the hand with a warm smile and then walks us right over the cliff. I really felt for her (and all of the actors, really) during SLAC’s traditional opening post-curtain call toast. There she was, blood streaming down her face, clearly emotionally spent, smiling for a group photo.
Here’s the thing: I know I’m making this play seem insufferably brutal and grim. So let me be clear. It is not. It’s weird and strange and funny and sweet. It’s full of personalizations of important conversations in the world about domestic violence, gender transition, war trauma, drug addiction, poverty, patriarchy and the ever shifting sand about our use of language around it all. But it when it comes out swinging, it does not pull punches. The simmering rage under its sitcom veneer left me speechless on opening night. Big Bang Theory, it ain’t.
Taylor Mac’s Hir continues through March 17 at Salt Lake Acting Company. For tickets and information, click here.