Legendary Pittsburgh actress Helena Ruoti is a tour de force as Paige in Hir, the genuinely modern yet dysfunctional family dramedy at the Barebones Black Box Theatre in Braddock.
As you enter the theatre, there is stuff strewn about the stage of this modest 1950’s wood-paneled living space. It looks chaotic as if as if a bomb has exploded. This may be portent of the mine field of discord to come when we realize nothing is as it seems to be.
We learn that Paige’s world, her home, her family, and her marriage, have been slowly deteriorating around her for years. She is trapped in an abusive marriage to Arnold, where they live in a “starter home” built over a landfill. He has lost his job of 33-years as a plumber to a Chinese-American woman. The humiliation of his job loss escalates his anger toward Paige and their daughter. Paige’s life seemingly takes a strange turn for the better when Arnold suffers a debilitating stroke which liberates them from his abuse. Turnabout may not be fair play, but Paige dishes out what she received by removing all sense of caring and emotional support for Arnold. Clad in a house dress, diapers, makeup, and wig, Arnold has become a ghoulish old clown with the attention span of a gnat.
That would be enough for any woman, wife or mother to endure, but to this dysfunctional family, it’s merely just another fork in life’s road. Their youngest child, Maxine, a high school aged teenager, is well on hir way on the transition to Max. (Max wants to be referred to with the gender-neutral pronoun hir, hence the show’s title.) While Paige homeschools Max, he is teaching her about life as well as being transgender. She is quite the enthusiastic and sympathetic learner.
As the play opens there is a knock at the front door, now barricaded by the kitchen tabled that prohibits entry. It is Isaac, her oldest son, coming back from three years at war where he served in the military’s mortuary service. He picked up body parts, and brought home a case of PTSD, as well as a dishonorable discharge for drug abuse. He yearns for the comforts of home in order to get his act together only to be shocked by what he finds when he opens the back door. How has his family deteriorated so much without him knowing it, to the point that the sights he sees and conversations he hears cause him to vomit in the kitchen sink repeatedly?
The play, written by the transgender NYC-based writer and performance artist Taylor Mac provides us with an intimate look into an American family as they cope with unprecedented change in their little corner of the universe. Mac’s script ranges from the sad to absurd, as when Paige uses a squirt bottle to keep Arnold in line, just as you might train a dog. We learn Arnold perhaps deserves such treatment as the story unfolds.
barebones’ founder and director Patrick Jordan has assembled a cast of superb actors including veteran Helena Ruoti as Paige. Ms. Ruoti work has garnered an impressive list credits accolades and awards over the years. Her daring performance as Paige, as she copes and tries to come to grips with her life’s new reality, will surely add to the list of well-deserved kudos.
Douglas Rees’ gritty portrayal of Arnold, the family patriarch turned cartoon-like stroke victim is scarily accurate. He lurches around the house under the thumb of Paige, as he is clueless and lost in another world. The image of Rees clad only a diaper and blue eyeshadow is forever burned into my retinas.
As Isaac, Tad Cooley reflects both physically and mentally the look of a man who has seen too much horror in the theatre of war. Cooley’s Isaac is a mask, predominantly of mostly smiles as he portrays the struggle to cope with what he has seen in Afghanistan and his discovery of what he thought was the sanctuary of his home. Cooley reveals through his eyes, in spite his smile, that there is a tension waiting for release. Each new discovery pushes him a little closer to implosion as that smile slowly transforms. There is a brilliantly funny, and yet sad bit of back-and-forth business between Paige and Isaac as she discovers the sound of the blender will send him running to the sink again and again to barf.
At last we meet Liam Ezra Dickinson’s character Max. In real life Dickinson has completed hir gender transition and lends an invaluable authenticity to hir heartwarming performance that reveals Max’s journey of discovery and identity confirmation. Dickinson delivers a carefully nuanced performance. We cheer for his independence, as he carefully tends to his family.
The first act comes to a close as Paige and Max head off to the museums for their weekly Saturday of cultural enlightenment. After much protesting from Paige, Isaac stays behind with his father and starts to put order back in the house. Or does he?
Act Two opens with another brilliant Ruoti moment, a freak-out to the max, as Paige returns from the museum trip to discover a tidy house and cleaned up Arnold. Later she and Issac wrestle over whether the air conditioner should be on or off. He with a smile and she with the intensity of a wounded Mama bear, repeatedly push each other’s buttons.
Jordan’s direction and scene design, coupled with the very intimate Barebones Black Box performance space, provide us a portal into this dysfunctional family. It as if we are voyeurs looking in the living room of the house next door. Quickly we forget our seat in the theatre as we are enveloped in the sad and yet funny absurdity of it all. It is difficult to think of a situation as sad and challenging as the one Paige finds her family in. Yet as we leave the theatre, we realize we have laughed for most of this brilliantly written, directed and acted production.
Barebones productions present Hir at their Black Box Theatre in Braddock May 11-26 at 8 pm. For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/event/barebones-hir or 1-888-71TICKET.
Categories: Archived Reviews