You really can’t go home again. And maybe you shouldn’t want to. That’s what one of the characters finds in “Hir,” the Woolly Mammoth’s fantastic new staging of Taylor Mac’s kitchen-sink drama, a searing and uproarious masterwork for this cultural moment.
The play opens on a prodigal son, Isaac (nicknamed “I”), returning from a foreign war. Brooding and disappointed, Isaac expects to return to his average American family but instead finds what to him seems like chaos. His father, Arnold, physically and mentally disabled after a major stroke, now wears a pink nightgown and is forced by Isaac’s mother, Paige, to take estrogen. Meanwhile, Paige, released from the demands of an abusive husband, has thrown off the duties of homemaking and has gotten a job. Much of her awakening is tied to Max, the younger child of the family, a genderqueer teenager who is transitioning and uses the non-binary pronouns “ze” instead of s/he and “hir” (pronounced “here”) instead of her/him.
The pleasant disarray of Misha Kachman’s set design, where every surface is covered in clutter, forecasts the dysfunction of the play’s family and also acts as visual proof of Paige’s domestic rebellion. A hanging quilt competes with what look like half-finished art projects, colored lights, and a couple of loose balloons. “We don’t do order,” asserts Paige.
Nevertheless, the small cast does an excellent job navigating both the cluttered space and Taylor Mac’s similarly joke-dense, break-neck script. Shana Cooper skillfully directs the family of four at moments of both crisis and calm; the way the actors talk over and under each other, physically circle and cross each other in the family home, creates a realistic feeling of family intimacy. Mac’s dialogue provides laughs from the very beginning, including great one-liners (“You can’t wash plaid. It’s its own kind of filth”).
…a searing and uproarious masterwork for this cultural moment.
The production is also impressively well-cast. Emily Townley is irrepressible as Paige, and expertly communicates the character’s complexity. Awestruck by Max’s observations on gender and sexuality, she snaps her fingers and yells things like “paradigm shift!” Sporting green hair and a teenage ‘tude, Malic White is similarly perfect as Max. Ze is sulking and defensive one minute, and angry with arms out-flung the next. While the script pokes gentle fun at Max’s grandstanding, it’s clear that ze is the catalyst for change in the family.
As the outsider, Joseph J. Parks does an excellent job showing Isaac’s confusion and anger at not finding things back home “in their place.” This rage is mirrored in his father, Arnold, played with virtuosic zeal by Mitch Hébert. Arnold, a mostly non-verbal, displaced patriarch, serves as a source of consistent humor in the first Act, but Hébert’s performance becomes something more sinister as Isaac tries to get the family “back on track.”
Family conflicts come to a head in a mesmerizing and surreal climactic scene of shadow puppetry that is better experienced than described; I can say that its success is thanks to frothy dress up gowns by Ivania Stack, lighting by Colin K. Bills and fight choreography by Robb Hunter.
Closing with a subdued denouement, the play appropriately does not offer easy answers to the work’s very challenging questions, but does suggest radical empathy as part of the way forward. It’s a great coda to a provocative and thoughtful look at what it means to be “here” right now in America.
Running Time: 2 hours with a 10-minute intermission.
Advisory: Contains discussion of sexual violence, and a brief scene of simulated violence.
“Hir” plays through June 18th at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. For more information call 202-393-3939 or click here.