Theater

Review: Fun moments in Steppenwolf's 'You Got Older,' but production lacks depth

I’m not quite certain how I feel about Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of Clare Barron’s Obie award-winning play “You Got Older.” Opening night was delayed due to ensemble member John Mahoney’s untimely death, and, certainly given the subject matter, this must have been a difficult play to present. I’ve long applauded Steppenwolf’s risk taking and presentation of fresh, new plays; it’s always been a spirited, passionate, creative venue. But, this time, Steppenwolf has presented a very predictable “daughter-father relationship/oh, no, it’s cancer” drama. The only variable perhaps is this father and daughter have a very good relationship.

“You Got Older” is billed as a “quirky dark comedy” about Mae, a young woman “following the thorny path to adulthood right over a cliff.” There are some very funny moments, but we never experience Mae’s transformation/transition, let alone the path over a cliff. Nor do we find out much about any of the characters beyond quick one-liners. The fault is in the script. Yes, it is bawdy and irreverent and, at times, even sentimentally heart-tugging, but Barron fails to (or fears to) go down the real road of an ailing father and an emotionally battered daughter.

Scenes are overlong and fractured, despite some very identifiable and everyday brilliance. The character of Jenny brings a bunch of baseball caps to the hospital: “So if you need to cry, you pull the cap down over your eyes, and you can cry in public.” Dad, sitting outside with Mae, expresses, “I’m always itching to go do something else even when I’m in the middle of having a nice moment.” So true.

The cast is a superb ensemble – strong actors all, and this cast has the ability to string the fractured scenes together. Caroline Neff (marvelous in “The Flick” and “The Fundamentals”) captures Mae with her almost expressionless face and resplendent dead-pan vocals. Watch out for her double whammy explanation “I dumped my boyfriend and, since he was my boss, he fired me.” Siblings Hannah (Audrey Francis), Matthew (David Lind) and Jenna (Emjoy Gavino) are too briefly onstage. For perplexing comic relief, the majestic and handsome Gabriel Ruiz appears as the cowboy, aka the sexual fantasy of Mae’s dreams and recurring assist in avoiding her feelings about her dad’s situation. But perhaps it is Glenn Davis’ Mac, and Francis Guinan’s Dad WHO steal the show. Davis portrays a sweet, eager nerd so willing to please, and Guinan is the sweet, vulnerable, sensitive father – the one you’re going to wish you had.

Technically, Director Jonathan Berry has done a commendable job with Barron’s script, particularly the hospital scene, which so loving illustrates a moment in a family’s life, and the difficult erotic scenes. Meghan Raham’s scenic design is a pleasing presentation of Seattle suburbia, albeit in minimal form, and there are complementary projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson and contemporary costumes by Alison Siple. Kudos to Neff, by the way, with her subtle skills in adding and shedding various costume pieces throughout the play.

But be forewarned. The F-word is very prevalent; there’s discussion of scabs, pus, men’s privates and a lot of sex. (Mae has a nasty rash all over her body that prevents her acting upon her desires and hormones, but not from talking about it.) Ironically, the wordless and almost joyful final scene (an engaging traditional family dance) closes the show with suppositions of what probably was predicted by everyone from the very beginning. Listening to the audience filing out, comments ranged from “awesome” to “I’m glad I saw this” to “ho, hum, boring, that was long.” And, nebulously, I’m leaving this production at your doorstep to decide.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is an actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.

“YOU GOT OLDER”

WHEN: Through March 11

WHERE: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theater, 1650 Halsted St., Chicago

COST & INFO: Production running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, with one intermission. Includes coarse language and frank depictions of sexual fantasies. May not be suitable for those younger than age 18. Tickets range from $20 to $89. Tickets and information: www.steppenwolf.org or 312-335-1650.

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