Issue plays can be difficult. For every “Angels in America,” there are 10 seldom-produced manifestos with two talking heads spouting academic counterpoints.
No matter how spot on the ideas may be, drama is drama, and it has to have some oomph.
Taylor Mac’s “Hir” — currently on stage at the Henry Clay courtesy of the Liminal Playhouse — is unafraid to really dive into intersectional issues of feminism and trans identity, and manages to wrap them in a cogent and engaging familial drama.
The play centers around a son, Isaac Conner (Neil Brewer), who returns home from war to discover that his always complicated family has turned into something he doesn’t recognize.
His once domineering and abusive father Arnold (Michael J. Drury) has suffered a debilitating stroke and is barely functional; his mother Paige (Teresa Willis) has taken the opportunity to commandeer the home, which simultaneously begins a near manic study of gender and power dynamics; and his sibling Max (Megan Adair), who had been assigned to the female gender at birth, has come out as a trans man.
On top of it all, Paige has rebelled against Arnold’s rule of law that the house be kept tidy, and the house, represented by a combo kitchen/living room ably designed and decorated by Eric Allgeier, has lost all order, with dirty clothes and dishes strewn about so thick it’s tough to even see the floor.
Throughout the play, all the characters vie for some kind of dominance, working as stand-ins — albeit very human and deeply flawed stand-ins — for various societal factors that also vie for dominance.
Arnold is the doddering old-world patriarch, on his last leg and unable to continue to be in charge. Isaac is the heir apparent to this patriarchal power, but will he reject the violent tools of his father? Paige is that certain kind of liberal who takes the struggle for equality and centers her own voice, trying to take charge.
And Max is a deeply othered individual who just wants the opportunity to figure himself out but must constantly educate those around him.
While Isaac’s arrival is the inciting incident that starts the action, he shares the spotlight enough and each character is the “main” character for a little while.
Throughout the story, the audience’s loyalties will likely change, which induces a somewhat unpleasant disorientation, but it’s clearly the aim of the show to create that empathy vertigo and use it it to engage the audience both emotionally and intellectually as the play examines the issues and identifies with the characters.
I personally felt the play’s attempt to show all points of view while still getting deep into the ideas of power dynamics comes awfully close to an equivocation with which I politically disagree.
No, a woman seeking to take power back isn’t basically the same as an abusive father — but to read a simple dialectic answer into the complex text is doing a disservice to the fine script and acting going on here. Such judgments belong in the conversation you have after the curtain goes down.
While “Hir” in many ways rests on the back of Brewer’s Isaac, it’s Willis’ Paige who owns the evening. Her manic mom spouting political talking points and nearly vibrating with energy is so lifelike, I imagine anyone who has had a close experience with pathological mania would find the resemblance eerie and unsettling.
I know I did.
Despite her near constant energy high, she still plays her role on enough levels that she never becomes grating or one-note.
Brewer struggles some with that same modulation. He starts yelling early and goes back to it too often, at the cost of some moments that could have had more impact with a little more nuance.
Adair manages to alter her voice, look and physicality incredibly well in taking on the male role of Max, and manages some really nice character transformations within the play, as Max tries to understand what kind of man he is when his brother is around.
While I can’t help but wish we had more trans actors in Louisville to take on these roles, that wish is political and intersectional. One can find no fault in Adair’s impressive transformation.
Drury is effective and unsettling as Arnold, who spends most of the play nonverbal, with the mental capacity of someone around 2 years old, give or take a lucid moment. While there are jokes embedded here, there always is a humanity to Drury that moves his interaction beyond the more standard (and offensive) comedic take on mental disability.
Many of Liminal Playhouse’s offerings ask hard questions and deal with difficult themes. But “Hir” is perhaps the most off-putting production I’ve seen them produce so far. The fact that it’s well done makes it all the more difficult to watch.
There is certainly a place for this kind of theater, even a need for it, but many audience members can’t enjoy the anxious discomfort this play induces for the majority of its stage time. I think it’s worth putting in the effort to catch this show and living in that discomfort for an hour or two, but you should certainly know what kind of ride to expect.
“Hir” continues this weekend at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Shows from Sept. 7-9 start at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 10. Tickets are $20 in advance, and $22 at the door.