You Got Older
At the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—Sometimes Clare Barron’s comedy-drama “You Got Older” meanders and occasionally confuses. But mostly it is engrossing, and alternately funny and painful in the production at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Give thanks to Jonathan Berry’s insightful directing and a truly terrific performance by Caroline Neff, who is on stage every minute of the two hour-plus running time delivering a master class in how to sustain a role of boggling difficulty.
Neff plays a troubled young woman named Mae, a recently unemployed lawyer living in Minneapolis who has temporarily moved into her family home in Washington state to care for her widower father, who is fighting a losing battle with cancer. And that about summarizes the totality of the plot.
Barron’s script is basically a series of duets, primarily between the young woman and her ailing father but also with Mac, a man who claims he knew her in grammar school. Then there is a menacing fantasy cowboy Mae periodically calls up from her imagination t give her a hard time and deliver some rough-trade sex.
The Remaining three characters are Mae’s sisters Hannah and Jenny and her brother Matthew. We see them together in only one scene in the hospital where the siblings are visiting their father after surgery. The four gather for a final joyous wedding dance that ends the play so abruptly the audience wasn’t sure the show was over and the applause could begin.
The individual scenes are quirky, shifting gears between realism and fantasy and humor and pathos. Much of the humor is eccentric, like the four siblings discussing the nature of an alleged family body odor or Mae’s childhood acquaintance admitting to a fascination with pus and scabs.
Mae’s life is dysfunctional. She loses one boyfriend after another. She is highly sexed but can’t find an outlet. She has a bad skin rash from an unknown source, probably psychologically induced. She seems rootless and unlucky and maybe clueless yet she also seems a caring, intelligent person. In truth we don’t know how to take her. The only stable character is Mae’s farther, a sympathetic, caring, and simple man who loves gardening and cares deeply for Mae and is going to die of cancer.
The play starts slowly with Mae and her father in the man’s garden, making small talk. The entrances and exists of the fantasy cowboy and the schoolmate from Mae’s youth happen without dramatic preparation. Mae frets over her sexual frustrations and bodily malfunctions (she has a mysterious lump on her jaw that may or may not be a cause for concern). The play’s language runs from domestic chitchat to vulgarity and sexual explicitness, sometimes in the same scene. There is an absence of coherent plot, or maybe purposely no plot at all.
Audiences who like a well-rounded play with a beginning, middle, and end may struggle. Barron almost perversely throws in head-scratching bits, like the father and his four children gathering while the father bangs a gong, apparently a family tradition, but why it is in the play? For that matter, what is the meaning of the play’s title?
But Barron’s skillful writing keeps the action grounded in a kind of offbeat realism that should finally seduce all but the most resistant viewers. Mae is not an exceptional person, to say the least. Neither are her father and sisters and brother. The fantasy cowboy and the grammar school acquaintance are oddball elements. Yet they all work, individually and collectively. This could be a boring, irritating play but after the first 10 minutes I was hooked, thanks most of all to Neff’s portrait of an insecure Mae who makes great company for all her problems.
The play originally opened in 2014 and has gone through several productions and presumably the actresses who played Mae delivered quality performances. But I can’t imagine a production managing without Neff at the forefront in subtle command of the character’s neurotic complexes.
Francis Guinan is a marvel (no surprise there) as the ailing father, maybe the only well adjusted character on the stage. It’s a gentle, yearning performance that at one moment brought me to near tears and at other times got me giggling. Gabriel Ruiz is properly implacable as the fantasy cowboy, brawny and scary. Glenn Davis, on the other hand, is agreeable comic relief as Mac, the school friend who plays up to Mae and then learns he has mistaken her for her sister Hannah.
The three siblings don’t get much stage time but they all make their mark, thanks to spot-on performances by Audrey Francis, David Lind, and Emjoy Gavino. Francis in particular is a hoot who is convinced that the gift of a sweater will absolutely lead to the breakup of a romantic relationship.
The physical production is a major factor in establishing the idiosyncratic flow of the action. The basic prop in Meghan Raham’s set is a high wooden fence that runs the width of the stage, with props moving on and off as the scenes change from Mae’s home to a local bar to the hospital. Rosean Davonte Johnson’s projections set the mood with a background that suggests a blizzard, a rainstorm, and even the shadows of wandering deer. Alison Siple’s costume designs, Marcus Doshi’s lighting, and Matt Chapman’s sound design and original music are also major contributors. Sasha Smith is credited with “Intimacy choreography,” and based on what I saw on the stage he was the right person for the job.
Jonathan Berry orchestrates what could be a rudderless, maybe pointless story into high entertainment, at least for those willing to buy into Barron’s script for the deft, moonbeam work that it is. The rehearsals for “You Got Older” must have crackled with excitement as the director and his players plumbed each off-the-wall scene to connect the outwardly disparate elements. That they made almost every moment come across as inevitable, if not logical, is a remarkable feat.
“You Get Older” runs through March 11 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $89. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
The show gets a rating ofstars.
Contact Dan: Zeffdaniel@yahoo.com