Shock and awe5/18/2017
StageWest is going out with a bang. The fireworks of “Hir” put an exclamation point on the company’s final year, before it’s absorbed into the larger Iowa Stage Company. This comes after 20 years of “bold, challenging” work, as called for in StageWest’s mission. Always frank, often very funny, and one of the first places in the country to mount a show about 9/11, its productions have kept us on theater’s cutting edge — a rare thing in a city this size.
Now, the company will go on taking risks, under the Iowa Stage umbrella. Still, as a going-away party, “Hir” delivers a blowout. Better yet, it’s got a Queen of the Revels, namely Becky Scholtec as Paige Connor.
This season has seen some Monster Moms, especially in “August: Osage County,” but Scholtec has to take the prize for sheer mania. Her hair frizzed, arms in a windmill, legs shooting every which way (at one point she even gets a foot up on the kitchen counter), and her voice veering from whisper to shriek, she could be Shiva the Destroyer with all her tentacles in play. Yet what’s strange is how the woman cracks a good joke — or sets you feeling sorry. Scholtec has been a local mainstay for years, but recent roles have kept her reined in; in one she wound up an android. To watch her at last go hog-wild does a fan’s heart good.
What’s driven Paige batty is, in part, a classic domestic tragedy. For a husband she had an utter POS, a man who wasn’t much better as a father. The oldest child, Isaac, ran off to join the Marines, and the tumult of the play, including fresh visits to ugly memories, all unfolds on the day of his return. But playwright Taylor Mac has found success on the far fringes of performance, where he works as “judy.” This work is his most celebrated, and it goes far beyond a story of men and their demons, spiking its old-fashioned unhappy marriage with a strong shot of contemporary gender fluidity.
Isaac returns to a train wreck, such a mess that the first glimpse of the stage can set you laughing. Designer Josh Jepson had his hands full, since everything gets neatened and straightened for Act Two, so that we realize the larger setting is ticky-tack Sprawlsville. The Connor home, however, has been twice upended. The white-trash head-of-household has suffered a stroke, and his teenage daughter Max has begun taking hormones — becoming a “Hir.”
With their oppressor reduced to a mewling buffoon, in diapers and a nightgown, his two former victims wallow happily in newfound freedoms. Paige may look out of head herself, rushing around bellowing “Paradigm shift!” — but you can see where she’s coming from, and why she fights Isaac’s attempts at restoring “norms.” The posturing on both sides, too, badly strains any possibility for honest sharing between Max and “hir” older brother. That possibility generates real tenderness at climax, so that while I couldn’t quite believe the script’s last-minute maneuvers, I enjoyed a lovely tension along the way.
Mainly, though, the play deals in shock and awe. The extreme material suits Isaac almost as well as his mother. The way the ex-Marine brandishes his chest and chin suggests that Des Moines has turned up a fine new talent in Michael LaDell Harris. As for Asher Suski as Max, the feelings that lurk in the exchanges towards the end depend on him, his gaze growing more intense as his face grows softer. Still, after Scholtec’s, the great performance here is Shawn Wilson’s as the brain-damaged father. Shambling around half-naked with his tongue lolling, much of the time in a humiliating girlish slip, Wilson goes to places most actors would never dare, and yet conveys, throughout, the presence of human being inside the ruins. Talk about “bold and challenging!” ♦
StageWest Theater Company
Kum & Go Theater, Des Moines Social Club
Wed.-Sat, May 14-20, 7:30 PM; Sunday, May 21, 2 p.m.