Chicago Theater Review: YOU GOT OLDER (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 9, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


In the bleak midwinter — appropriately — comes this dour drama. A Chicago premiere from Steppenwolf Theatre Company, this 2014 Obie winner will not let you warm your hands by its fire. Like Raven Theatre’s current Nice Girl or Shattered Globe Theatre’s Five Mile Lake, Clare Barron’s You Got Older marinates in the failures of trapped characters. Their every move brings a different defeat. It takes all the acting chops from director Jonathan Berry’s concentrated septet to distract from Barron’s torpor with a semblance of action. Even so, the play’s pathos, pain and sheer enervation escape the stage and permeate the house.

What infects this script most of all is the author’s near obsession with the breakdown of the body. Whether it’s boils, lesions, rashes, sores, cancerous growths, pus, family smells, headaches, insomnia, disfigurement or just bad wet dreams, You Got Older (the title testifies) has it in stock. Its default drive is illness: Happiness is a mere accident brought on by finding comfortable boots, ringing a gong outside a hospital, or seeing deer in the backyard. Yes, behind the despair you find care too. But the controlling colors here remain sterile white to blah beige to sad gray to just black.

Barron’s principal survivor/victim, middle-aging Mae (the always fascinating Caroline Neff), has lost her boyfriend and her job at an attorneys’ firm in Minneapolis. Lost and lonely, she’s migrated to the Pacific Northwest to care for her cancer-stricken, deeply devoted dad (Francis Guinan, sweetly suffering). Mired in melancholy and seeing herself as damaged goods, Mae deals with a rash that could be worse. Her sole inner life seems to be dreams in which a gruff and horny cowboy (Gabriel Ruiz) visits her during snowstorms and penetrates her posterior. She has half-hearted sex (no condom) with a classmate Mac (Glenn Davis) who always fancied her except that he thinks she’s her sister Hannah (Audrey Francis). Their clumsy courtship would be funny if it weren’t real.

Mostly, besides taking up knitting to quell the boredom, Mae engages in sometimes frustrating, occasionally moving chats with dad. Staring into eternity, he gazes at an empty fire pit and is grateful for life’s little pluses. The circular dialogue that ties up father and daughter is sometimes amusing. But, more often than not, the small talk verges on the invisible.

Essentially wasted in one second-act scene, the other siblings—who don’t resemble each other at all–visit dad in the hospital: Matthew (David Lind), Jenny (Emjoy Gavino), and Francis’s extroverted Hannah. Their family gossip sounds every bit as arbitrary, scattershot, and ingrown as most of the dialogue. To feel their mute labors of love, you must, in effect, listen between the lines.

Worn down and played out, Mae bravely soldiers on, despite an existence in stasis between teasing dreams (with cowboy consolations) and down-dropping reality (that not even a promising job interview will lighten up). Well, she got older.

The 130 minutes (an intermission was recently inserted for small reason) end weirdly, with a raucous (imaginary?) dance at Jenny’s wedding that ends abruptly and, like everything here, morosely.

As inarticulately needy Mae and her anguished and ineloquent father, Neff and Guinan never strike a false note. We sense both how close they’ve come and why they can’t get any closer. Neff’s lovely loser falls apart very well. But that’s a paltry payoff for this very wintry work. Get well soon…

photos by Michael Brosilow

You Got Older
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted
ends on March 11, 2018
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment }

Leah February 19, 2018 at 5:37 pm

I went to the preview of this play and almost fell asleep during the first act. I found the dialogue boring and it did not hang together for me. There was no intermission. The second part was a bit better until that bizarre dance. I have watched relatives die of cancer and this play did not move me. I also did not care for the play upstairs and many of my middle-age and older African American friends thought it was disrespectful to African-American women. Steppenwolf’s wonderful ensemble can do better.

In the past two months I have seen some terrific plays especially by Arthur Miller at Goodman and Court as well as while in California. I have also seen the new play at 16th street which I thought was better.

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