Bush Theatre, London – until 22 July 2017
Issac is returning home after a three-year stint as a US marine where his job was to pick up body parts after front line attacks. He longs for the peace and quiet of his nuclear family and the familiarity of middle America so he can make peace with the demons of war. But on opening the door of the house he grew up in, he discovers a revolution has taken place on the home front. After a stroke turned his father into a near vegetable, his mother is avenging years of abuse. His sister Maxine has transitioned to Max. Both mom and Max have rejected social conventions and are living in an anarchic mess of laundry, dishes and socio-political soundbites.
Queer performance artist and playwright Taylor Mac’s 2015 kitchen sink drama shows clear influence by the great American writers. Its distinctly modern context and overt political agenda means its angrier but less dramaturgically refined than its predecessors – Miller, Williams, O’Neill, etc. The mother speaks mostly in platitudes: “Paradigm shift!” and “We don’t believe in monetary systems.” accompany regular lectures on gender that sound like social media posts from LGBTQIA rights charities. This would work if her character explored the issues more in-depth along with her trans son, but she doesn’t – she just preaches.
Mac shows great instinct for the character conflict that drives the story forward rather than relying on external events. Issac is a man’s man who is assumed to take after his father, but he has more capacity for empathy. He is gifted with a great reveal, but not enough is made of it. The father, though present, speaks little and is overtly abused by Mom. Max, a teenager, is still finding his sense of self and vacillates between the others’ arguments. He is written with a believable teenaged reticence and sex drive, and could be a much more compelling character were he not overshadowed by his mother. Each person represents huge, clashing ideologies, so tension constantly simmers or boils over.
The performances are outstanding. Ashley McGuire is Paige, the formidable matriarch of this family of four. Even though her dialogue does little to further her causes, she has a totally compelling presence. Andy Williams is a convincing shell of a human being that endures gross humiliation and abuse that makes for hugely uncomfortable viewing. Even the stories of the abuse he doled out in the past do little to metre the pity his characterisation evokes. Arthur Darvill is a bewildered Issac who struggles to process this new world around him in the face of wartime trauma but struggles with the American accent. Griffyn Gilligan is a perfectly conflicted teenager who simultaneously wants a revolution and to be left alone to wank.
Hir is an achingly accurate reflection of a divided America – the white, male Right longing for order and traditional social norms clash with the Left, who bend the rules and smash up the Right’s expectations of gender, familial roles and the status quo. Both sides are flawed, and neither are listening. The powerful on either side often turn violent, money has more power than it should, and everyone is broken. The entire polarised, cat fighting system is contained in a flimsy starter home threatening to collapse into the mossy earth at any moment if people don’t immediately start respecting each other and their surroundings.
But Taylor Mac doesn’t quite manage to fulfill the story’s ability to challenge the issues it raises and create nuclear war; instead it is a series of skirmishes fought by huge personalities that never reaches a fully-formed climactic battle and resolution. It’s still a compelling story with barnstorming performances, but it certainly has its shortcomings.