Saturday, February 10, 2018

Oh, Daddy: Despite Imperfect Pacing, 'You Got Older' Offers Nice Perceptivity and Poignancy -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

You Got Older
a recent play by Clare Barron
directed by Jonathan Berry
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 10

You Got Older is a play centered around a woman named Mae, seemingly in her late 20s or early 30s and well-played at Steppenwolf by Caroline Neff.

Mae is a Minneapolis lawyer who--before the action onstage begins--has broken up with her boyfriend, who was also her boss, so she is also out of a job.

Her widowed father, back home on the outskirts of Seattle, is badly ravaged by cancer, so she moves in with him (as embodied here by the always marvelous Francis Guinan).

Except for Mae's occupation, this scenario reflects real-life situations faced by the playwright, Clare Barron, who was 27 when she authored You Got Older, largely based on these experiences.

It isn't vital to know this genesis--revealed in an interview with Barron in the Steppenwolf program--but since I did, the grim reality of watching a loved one battle cancer was all the more poignant, especially coming just days after the death of the beloved Steppenwolf ensemble member, John Mahoney, of complications from throat cancer. (See my tribute to Mahoney here.)

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Especially as acted by Neff and Guinan, I found the reconnecting between Mae and her dad to be quite authentic and moving.

The play doesn't much delve into the circumstances around the death of Mae's mom, who was still married to her dad at the time, or how long it had been since father and daughter were in regular contact.

So despite presumably many phone conversations over the years, Mae's interactions with her father are understandably rather aloof and stilted at the beginning.

But while their freshly evolving relationship remains the most central--and compelling--aspect of You Got Older, Barron fleshes out her script in ways that diminish the power of the play's primary strengths.

Certainly, a career woman like Mae, coming back to her childhood hometown after many years away, beset by intertwining personal & professional disappointments--and a nasty rash on her back to boot--provides much for the author, actors and director Jonathan Berry to explore. (I couldn't help perceive parallels with the Charlize Theron film, Young Adult.)

As such, Mae's sexual longings are boldly broached, not only via Mac (Glenn Davis), an old schoolmate--actually of her sister--she encounters in a bar, but with the personification of a Marlboro Mannish cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) Mae repeatedly conjures in masturbatory fantasies.

Along with some frank adult dialogue, the cowboy adds some LOL moments to the proceedings, with Ruiz clearly having fun in the role.

And Davis adroitly imbues just enough awkwardness to make Mac not seem quite so predatory in pursuing Mae while her primary concern is her father's health.

Barron won a playwriting Obie Award for You Got Older, so my issues with perceived imperfections may not matter to everyone.

But while I understand the dramatic impetus for not devoting the entire piece to wistful conversations between Mae and her dad, many of the other scenes--including just one in which Mae's three siblings show up--run way too long.

Per a post-show discussion, perhaps the theatrical stalling is reflective of Mae wanting or needing to separate herself from her father's reality for prolonged stretches, but not only did multiple episodes seem to drag on in their own right, they sapped the play of its core absorbing forcefulness.

And I also can't say I gained much insight into Mae's life and psyche before she returned home, nor--other than an anguished but sweet rekindling of a connection with her dad--any acute sense of how her future may be affected due to the difficult stretch caring for her dad.

There were also literally four different times in You Got Older where I thought Guinan's character had died, and I won't even reveal his eventual outcome.

So as with all three plays I saw over a 6-day span--including Skeleton Crew and The Humans--this is a quality work with several nice elements, but not one likely to stick with me as scintillating as I get older.

But hats off, not just to Barron, Berry, Neff and everyone involved, but especially longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Guinan, who had co-starred in many shows with John Mahoney, including The Rembrandt just last fall.

For him to take the stage on Wednesday couldn't have been easy--Monday's performance of You Got Older was canceled due to Mahoney's passing, and none was scheduled on Tuesday--but he was terrific, and even joined the post-show discussion and was quite warmly engaging.

So my condolences to him and everyone at Steppenwolf and beyond who knew and loved Mr. Mahoney. He was truly a treasure.

1 comment:

Bobster said...

Good review, Seth. I only found 1 instance where I thought Guinan died, but I pretty much agree with everything you wrote. I probably would have pointed out how it's clear by the end of Act 1 that of all his kids Mae has the strongest bond to him.