What happens when you return home after time away only to find the home you remember has been rendered virtually unrecognizable? In Hir, a play by Taylor Mac currently in its Los Angeles premiere at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, the concept of a dysfunctional family is taken to another level in a household where everyone is struggling to cope with abuse, trauma, and new understandings of gender identity and expression.
Isaac (Zack Gearing) has just returned from Afghanistan after being dishonorably discharged from the Marines. He returns to his family home in a nondescript American suburb and is instantly shocked to see the house is in complete disarray, which is nothing compared to the state of disrepair his family is in. His father, Arnold (Ron Bottitta) recently had a debilitating stroke. He now exists in a state that is barely coherent, unable to care for himself or speak complete sentences, which is a far cry from the outspoken, abusive man Isaac grew up with. Isaac’s mother, Paige (Cynthia Kania) admits herself that she has lost it a little bit, which is immediately apparent. She has denounced cleaning and chores, relishing her new life of “freedom” now that her husband can no longer function or criticize. In fact, the cycle of abuse has shifted, with Paige belittling Arnold by giving him unnecessary drugs to keep him “docile,” squirting him with a water bottle when he misbehaves, like a disobedient dog, and even dressing him in a women’s nightgown, allegedly because it is “easier” now that he cannot care for himself and makes messes often.
Understandably, Isaac is horrified, and he is in for another surprise when he discovers his only sibling, teenage Max (Puppett) is now a trans man. Max prefers the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir” and longs to live on a commune as an anarchist. Paige is almost over-the-top supportive, frequently reminding everyone how Max has opened her eyes to what the world can really be, which is “beyond” gender and possessions. She is relishing the role reversal that has left her tyrant of the house, but Isaac’s return quickly makes Max realize that Paige’s new “woke” attitude might be doing more harm than good.
One of the most clever aspects of this play is its title, the meaning of which is twofold. “Hir” is the neutral pronoun Max prefers, but phonetically it sounds like “here,” and the importance of geography in regards to identity is a theme with heavy weight throughout the story. After years away working in mortuary affairs, responsible for returning the dead bodies of fellow soldiers to their families, Isaac was looking forward to normalcy, to a familiar place, only to learn that place no longer exists, for all intents and purposes. Max is longing, as many teenagers do, to exist anywhere other than the increasingly run-down family house, one that Arnold built himself years ago. The house is also a source of resentment for Paige, who was promised it would only be a starter home decades ago. And, finally, the dwelling Arnold constructed with his own two hands has now become his prison, literally and figuratively.
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo, it may seem like this is a story about experiences of people who identify as gender queer and the effect this has on their families, but the theme that ultimately overshadows everything else is that of abuse. Despite the outwardly absurd and comical situations, this story is deeply sad, and often difficult to watch. Every member of the family has been so profoundly affected by a lifetime of Arnold’s abuse, and now that his presence is only physical, the abuse within the household has only taken on new forms. Act one is a challenge. Paige is an incredibly grating character, and the backstory that makes her more understandable is revealed far too late to justify nearly two hours of non-stop horrific behavior. The strongest actor in the cast, Kania does her best to sell Paige’s intensely exhausting personality, but the scenes when the character leaves the room come as a relief. Ironically for a play that is wall-to-wall speeches, banter, and loudness, Hir is most effective in its rare quieter moments, of which there are not nearly enough. Much like the set on which it unfolds, the writing is cluttered, and the amount of noise ultimately confuses the potentially interesting statements the playwright is trying to make.
Hir runs at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble through March 17th. The running time is 2 hours, including one intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, with two additional Wednesday night performances on February 20th and March 6th. Tickets start at $32 and can be purchased here. $10 tickets are available for the performance on Friday, February 22nd, and additional discounts are available for students, seniors, and patrons under 30. The performances on February 20th and 22nd will include post-show discussions.