Taylor Mac’s ‘Hir’ at ArtsWest: Bless this Mess

Evan Barrett, Charles Leggett and Gretchen Krich. Photo by John McLellan.

“You don’t know what we do.”

“Don’t tell me what I am.”

The family in Taylor Mac’s Hir won’t tolerate assumptions, and nor will the play itself. Everyone is awful. Everyone is pitiful. The play is bleak. The play is hysterical. This family is living on a landfill, literally and metaphorically. So, if you’re looking for a straight-ahead story in which your preconceptions will be tidily confirmed, look elsewhere.

Now running at ArtsWest, in a co-production with Intiman, Hir isn’t a perfect play. It’s too long. The not-much-but-so-much-happening narrative eats its own tail, again and again. But Mac being Mac, none of that is accidental, and I’ll take fascinating and messy over technically flawless.

This is every inch a living room drama, that most American of theatrical forms. Isaac (Evan Barrett) is home from the wars to find his suburban home reaching hoarder levels of clutter, his incoherent father, Arnold (Charles Leggett), smeared with makeup, his little sister transitioned to a little brother, Max (Adrian Kljucec). At the heart of it all sits his gleeful mother Paige (Gretchen Krich), freed from an abusive marriage by her husband’s stroke and charging into her liberated, liberal future with abandon and rainbow-flag décor. (The spot-on, claustrophobia-inducing set is by set by Julia Welch and Timothy White Eagle.)

This is tough for Isaac, who has been dishonorably discharged from his military position picking up the bodies (and body parts) of fellow soldiers killed in action. He needs nothing more than to sleep in his childhood bed, but those days, the days of tradition, order and accommodating a patriarch’s every whim, are gone.

Like a water wiggly, the moral center of Hir slips away as soon as you try to grasp it. Paige and Max, with whom a liberal audience wants to sympathize, are vibrant and compelling, and also insufferable and cruel. Ditto Arnold, by all accounts a tyrannical, violent husband and father, now a drooling, belittled mess. Isaac, recovering from his wartime trauma, deliberately does something Paige has asked him not to and expects to be rewarded.

As filtered through Mac’s “absurd realism,” Hir reaches for the heights of comedy and the depths of tragedy by making everyone a victim and a villain, a conceit that can wear out its welcome when those scales tip. In this production, directed by Jennifer Zeyl, Hir’s acerbic qualities are heightened, while its moments of true, unselfish familial concern are dulled—that emotional puzzle piece is important in this delicate balance. But that’s just me; this play is slippery.

More than anything, watching Hir made me curious about how the play will age. Our national and cultural landscape has changed a lot the four years since I first saw Hir at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Max and Paige’s presentation to Isaac explaining Max’s preferred pronouns, ze/hir, is a better-understood topic. As a culture, we increasingly recognize Paige’s lifetime of victimization within her marriage. We’re talking about toxic masculinity, addiction, identity.

As its topics become more commonplace and less shocking, will this play, as written, lose its relevance? Will we say yawn yes we know and change channels?  And does that matter? If no one is doing this play in 20 years, is that a good thing?

For me, Hir is proof that a play can be great in and for its own time, which is as vital a role as being in the (ugh) canon. It’s the artistic equivalent of our evolving conception of marriage: considering the only “successful” relationships to be the ones that last forever and ever and ever amen is stultifying, and denies the power of the ones that teach us most, shape us wholly, which are sometimes over and gone far more quickly.

Hir runs through March 25 at ArtsWest.