Sam Shepard and Tracy Letts became Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights for their deeply disturbing works about families rotting from within — Shepard for “Buried Child” and Letts for “August: Osage County.”
Taylor Mac, a Pulitzer finalist and newly minted MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, comes at the dysfunctional family in a different way in “Hir,” a black comedy getting its South Florida premiere at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors. Mac’s take on a family about to go nuclear blends realism and absurdism. In this version of a “kitchen-sink drama,” a dishonorably discharged Marine repeatedly barfs into a sink full of dirty dishes.
Staged by Island City artistic director Andy Rogow, “Hir” is a challenging piece that draws observers in even as it sometimes makes them recoil. Rogow, his quartet of passionate actors and his fine design team meet the challenges of Mac’s thought-provoking play, including a shadow-puppetry scene that is both stinging and hilarious.
Through the prism of the disintegrating Connor family, Mac weaves a dizzying array of topics into his tale.
The youngest character, Max (Jacob Michael), is transitioning from female to male, hence the play’s use of the gender-neutral “hir” (pronounced “here”) instead of “her” or “him.” Older brother Isaac (Daniel Capote) has come back from three years in Afghanistan with a whopping case of PTSD, only to discover that his family’s shoddily built home now looks like it’s auditioning for an episode of “Hoarders.”
Father Arnold (Lawrence Buzzeo), a laid-off plumber who was physically abusive to his wife and younger child, has suffered a stroke, is now barely verbal, sleeps inside a box in the living room and is decked out in a woman’s nightgown, curly yellow wig and clown makeup. Mother Paige (Mia Matthews), who spritzes her largely docile husband with water whenever he seems ready to disobey, now holds court over the Connors’ vastly transformed home. As she explains to the appalled Isaac, “A person can only dust collectible plates from Reno for so long before said person goes a little batty.”
Isaac’s return from war again transforms the Connor home into a battleground. As she goes off to a museum with the homeschooled Max, Paige orders Isaac not to clean the house or care for his father. When she returns to a tidied home, chicken frying on the stovetop and a husband dressed in men’s clothing, she screams. You think, “This isn’t going to end well.” And it doesn’t.
To a person, the cast is fierce and fearless. Buzzeo, who at one point appears in nothing but adult diapers, manages to arouse sympathy for Arnold, even as he fleetingly hints at the bully the man was for so long. Michael, a transgender actor, richly inhabits the character of the teenage Max, changing from elation to moodiness to fury on a dime, as teens do. Capote makes Isaac a man crying out for help, for home, for safety, even as he takes a page from his father’s violent playbook.
Matthews, a glamorous beauty who has been given a “makeunder” by costume designer Peter A. Lovello, conveys all the complex colors of Paige’s personality — her giddiness at being free of her husband’s cruelty, her vengeful behavior once the tables have turned, her all-in yet intrusive support of Max, her refusal to again become the victim of a volatile man. It’s another great performance by a very skilled, Carbonell Award-winning actor.
Rogow’s design collaborators, Carbonell winners all, are Jodi Dellaventura, who created the Connors’ brightly colored, messy, crumbling abode; costume designer Lovello, who turns Buzzeo into one sad clown; sound designer David Hart and lighting designer Travis Neff.
Although transgender Max’s transition to a new way of living in the world is certainly a significant element of “Hir,” Mac’s script is also in the broader tradition of the Shepard-Letts dramas of family dysfunction. Will Island City’s audiences embrace a work that is simultaneously fascinating and disturbing? That’s anyone’s guess.
“Hir” runs through Dec. 10 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to IslandCityStage.org.