Review: Gender Non-Conformity Leads the New Normal in 'HIR' at Steppenwolf:

Jordan Nickels

What would happen if you returned home and the life you previously knew has changed? When the rules no longer apply as the glass ceiling breaks, who is left to pick up the pieces? Playwright Taylor Mac explores these questions and much more in HIR, now playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Isaac returns home from the war overseas to find his childhood home in disarray. Among the clutter and disorder is the matriarch, Paige, who has taken the reins from her husband, Arnold, taking his power away and the control Arnold’s abuse had over her. Isaac tries to piece together the new world his mother has created, a space of free thought where artistic liberties reign and gender conformities need not apply. Stuck in the middle is Max, Isaac’s younger sibling, a transgendered man whose queerness is as fierce as his banjo playing.

What’s fascinating throughout are the ever-changing power dynamics, with nobody ever really ending up on top. Arnold, once feared as the head of the household, fell from grace, and held on to his control fueled by anger. Paige, having taken charge of the family if only in her mind, is quickly yet agonizingly dethroned by her son’s return. Even Isaac loses grip and slips into his father’s old habits, therefore taking his place through frustration of his crumbling childhood.

Leaving Max, who basked in the front of support and understanding his mother gave him during his transition. However, as the real-world creeps in and the world they formed crumbles around them, Max wonders what the future holds on the outside and what lies under his gender identity. Max’s reaction to the resurgence of ugliness in his home truly reflects problems for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals today. While many are excepting and tolerant, many others don’t understand discussions of gender identity. While transgender and gender non-conforming persons have always existed, the topic is still fresh in the minds of a large portion of our country.

Our society tends to discriminate against what we can’t comprehend, making decisions based on terms already established. That’s what makes this play brilliant, by taking the tools we’ve been given to process information, and rendering them obsolete when rules change. With the pieces that remain, how do we make sense of new ideas and put ourselves back together? How do we view ourselves in the mirror shattered?

HIR takes the foundation our country was built on; the nuclear family and the white picket fence, the “American Dream” described by our boys returning home from war, and replaces this stories’ “prodigal son” with a transgendered man. This play is not about the fragile masculinity of Isaac, but the new-found power behind the masculinity of the gender queer Max.

Taylor Mac puts gender identity into the center of middle America, and watches how the audience reacts when cis gendered males no longer define the status quo. What I watched was an audience that laughed along with, as well as coincided with, a non-binary individual that provided them connections to events in their own lives. I could only hope that this audience would continue to pick up the pieces as they stepped outside Steppenwolf’s doors and beyond.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg hailing from Terre Haute, Indiana. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. Website: Instagram: @jnickels8 Photos by Michael Brosilow