Amy Morton (Paige) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in Taylor Mac's Hir, directed by Hallie Gordon, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Amy Morton (Paige) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in Taylor Mac's Hir, directed by Hallie Gordon, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Hir is a play about transition — a nation, a town, a family, and one teenager, all being transformed, whether deliberately or not. Appropriately, playwright Taylor Mac has taken the body of a family drama and whipped it into something that resembles what came before, but that is ultimately new.

At the beginning of the play, Isaac (Ty Olwin), the oldest child of Paige (Amy Morton) and Arnold (Francis Guinan), has returned home after three years serving in Afghanistan with the Marines' Mortuary Affairs unit. Isaac desperately misses all the comforts of home, but what he finds when he arrives is a house in complete and utter disarray.

Arnold, who once ran (and beat) his family with an iron fist, has had a stroke, and is now weak and aphasic. Paige, previously resigned to a life of homemaking and mollifying Arnold's temper, has taken over as head of the household with vicious glee. She shames her helpless husband mercilessly, dressing him in a dingy women's nightgown and making him sit in his own filth. And Max (Em Grosland), who Isaac knew as his tomboy little sister, is now a trans-masculine anarchist who buys testosterone from the black market and is referred to by the pronouns "ze" and "hir."

Paige and Max seem empowered by their new freedom from Arnold, especially Paige, who has embraced a hodgepodge of progressive ideals with nutty fervor. This new lifestyle is "like being baptized," she says breathlessly, "without the male hegemonic paradigm." But Amy Morton's impeccable performance shows the sharp teeth under Paige's enthusiastic smile. Just a bit of power, long denied, has turned her into a vengeful lunatic.

As her victim, Francis Guinan utterly disappears into his role as Arnold, meandering insensibly through a cloud of confusion, frustration, vulnerability, and menace. Olwin gives a delicate and reactive performance as the prodigal son who is in far over his head. In a standout performance, Grosland has deft comic timing and youthful energy, finding some of Hir's funniest moments in Max's adolescent self-centeredness and preening self-discovery.

Director Hallie Gordon's production doesn't miss a beat, with a design team that has created a hyperrealistic world to act as a springboard for Mac's absurd dialogue. Collette Pollard's set is filthy and perfectly lived-in, with dust and clutter gathering in all the right spots. The everyday costumes by Jenny Mannis provide a fine contrast to the garish costumes that Paige unveils in Act 2 to liven up a masochistic performance art piece that she has prepared for Isaac's homecoming.

Hir takes several topics that could each inspire a "problem play" of its own — Max's gender transition, Isaac's likely P.T.S.D., Paige's lifetime of abuse, and so on — and raises them to a fever pitch of absurdity. The result is messy, uncomfortable, and not always cohesive. But there are moments where all the pieces come together gloriously, sucker-punching the audience with a wave of empathy or a fit of laughter.