There have been numerous dramas that document the issues that men and women who served in the military face when they return home from fighting overseas and try to assimilate back into the life they left behind. But what would happen if you returned home from a war zone and the entire family you thought you knew had completely changed? Taylor Mac's 2014 play Hir is a dark comedy that intelligently focuses on the war of the sexes and the shifts in gender identity in the modern family. At the center of Mac's play is one very dysfunctional family. Stray Cat Theatre's production has perceptive direction and a crackerjack cast who elicit superb portrayals of these absurd but realistic individuals.
Mac's script is both hilariously absurd and tenderly moving, with four characters you are drawn to emotionally even though they are all far from perfect. Mac expertly shifts the landscape of traditional gender roles by presenting ideas that force us to question our own beliefs. Not everything in the play works or is fully fleshed out or concluded, but the world that Mac has created is intriguing and full of lively characters and many topics that will get you talking and thinking long after the play has ended. As Paige tells Isaac, "we're eccentric, but not insane" and Mac's characters are often hilarious but there are also many layers full of pained emotion beneath their funny exteriors.
Director Ron May elicits superb portrayals from his cast with direction that is as crisp and clean as the orderly home Isaac hopes for yet also full of moments of disorder and chaos that align perfectly with the world that Paige relishes. Jeff Thomson's scenic design expertly evokes the rundown house while Maci Cae Hosler's costumes align perfectly with the gender morphs and absurdity of the piece.
Andy Cahoon is excellent as the confused Marine who is desperately trying to put things back to the way they were before he left and find the comfort he needs. The continual feelings of confusion, shock and pain that Isaac experiences are expertly exhibited on Cahoon's face as are the damages caused by PTSD in his body language. He also exhibits many moments of true tenderness and care for both his father and brother. As Paige, Cathy Dresbach is full of fire. At first we think Paige is either unreasonable or a monster for the way she treats Arnold, even making him sleep in a cardboard box. But once we hear what she's gone through, with Arnold regularly beating her, Max, and even the family dog, there is a rationale for her behavior. Dresbach is superb in letting us see how these past moments of pain, the effects of her husband's stroke, and the new experiences and adventures that Max's transition have opened up, have brought joy to her life. Dresbach is an expert comic actor and creates a humorous portrayal of Paige but her dramatic skills are also expertly on display in showing how the years of rage and resentment that Paige endured have created a simmering pot about to boil over.
KJ Williams is simply sensational as Max in the breakout performance of the season. It is a gender bending performance of such depth and detail that in Williams' capable hands you never once doubt that Max isn't a man. Williams expertly portrays this teenager who is proud of his new and changing body but also struggling to find out who he is and what kind of man he wants to be. As Arnold, Gary David Keast has very few lines but delivers plenty of emotion with his firm stage presence that makes you feel for him even after you know what horrible racist and abusive things he did in his past.
Sex, gender and family dynamics are always hot and provocative topics and ones that can create both great drama and great comedy. While Mac throws a lot of ideas out there concerning our preconceived images of man and woman and the gender roles they are supposed to portray, they don't all stick or solidify. But the ones that do will have you thinking and questioning what you thought before. At one point during Hir Paige says to Isaac, "What you think you know, you do not know." That statement resonated profoundly with me long after the show ended. While not perfect, Mac has written a stimulating and thought provoking black comedy filled with damaged people who are also individuals who have moments of ugliness. Through the skilled performances and expert direction of this Stray Cat Production, and Mac's expert writing, you may find that even through their ugliness you empathize with them and are hopeful they find some form of happiness in their very bleak world.