As Tolstoy noted, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And playwrights — from Arthur Miller in “Death of a Salesman” to Tracy Letts with “August: Osage County” — have mined the rich field of familial dysfunction in their own ways. With “Hir,” which makes its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, multitalented writer and performer Taylor Mac digs in: There is a transitioning teen, a PTSD-afflicted vet and a wife who wreaks revenge on an abusive spouse.
“Taylor Mac was interested in exploring the idea of the ‘kitchen sink’ drama, and how we as a culture perceive the nuclear family as part of the American dream,” says the production’s director Hallie Gordon. “We have ingrained expectations of what an American family is supposed to look like — middle-class, white, cisgender parents and two kids — and this idea is finally starting to be recognized as a falsehood, or at least as not being the only kind of family out there.”
“I am certainly working in the lineage of the American family play,” Mac says, “but using [that] as a microcosm of our polarization and how we are in transition as a country.”
Mac, whose 24-hour avant-garde history lesson, “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” rocked New York last season, pulls no punches in “Hir,” flinging us into a squalid house where the returning soldier finds his mother doping her once-violent husband into humiliating submission, and his younger sister on the path to changing gender. While all family dramas invite audiences to relate to the dynamics manifested onstage, the extremes at play in the household Mac creates force one, hopefully, to grasp the bigger picture he is attempting to draw.
“We’ve built ourselves on a foundation that hasn’t been entirely healthy,” he says. “So what do we do? And how do we move forward? How do you care for something that’s not functioning? Do you just try to get rid of that foundation and start fresh, or do you try to repair it? That’s the question at the heart of the play. And I don’t have the answer.”
June 29-Aug. 20, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For tickets ($20-$89), visit Steppenwolf.org