Pictured: Phil Fiorini and Carla Noack. Photo by Cynthia Levin.
By Abigail Trabue
“We will not rewrite his history with pity”
Taylor Mac’s HIR, now on stage at the Unicorn Theatre, catapults the American Family into the 21st century in a way that is so loud, so heartbreaking, so unforgettable, and oh-so-real.
Under the exceptional direction of Unicorn’s new Associate Artistic Director Ian R. Crawford, HIR offers a family at its most raw and vulnerable—dealing with some pretty complicated shit. At the center of this homespun hurricane is Paige, played by Carla Noack in one of the best performances you will see this year. Paige has decided that order and quiet—qualities her abusive husband covets—no longer rule the roost. They don’t “do order” anymore, a fact she explains to her son Isaac (Sam Cordes), who is not without demons, having been dishonorably discharged from the Army. Isaac, newly arrived home, sifts through a space that looks straight out of an episode of “Hoarders” (really creative work here by set designer Gary Mosby and props designer Eric Palmquist).
But it’s not the pile of dirty dishes or laundry thrown all around that has Isaac puking in the sink. It’s the knowledge (amongst a few other things) that his sister Maxine is now his transitioning brother Max, and that his father Arnie, who suffered a stroke, is now impaired to the point that he wears a diaper and can’t form a complete sentence.
Paige isn’t exactly caring for Arnie either. In fact, you might say she’s subscribed to the “eye for an eye” philosophy now that Arnie can no longer beat her on the regular. She lets him sit in his own soil. She dresses him in a nightgown and has him sleep in a box. When he acts up, she squirts him with a water bottle she keeps strapped to her hip. And all of this is too much for Isaac, a man who is clearly showing his own tendencies towards violence, potentially following in his abuser father’s footsteps.
As Isaac, Sam Cordes gives us a performance that has you waiting for the impending explosion. You can feel how badly he wants his old home back, and for Paige to be his former mom again. Isaac insists that we “have to get this all back on track,” but why? Why do Paige and Max have to return to a home life that was little more than a male-dominated prison? The Arnie that Isaac wants returned is a man who lost his plumbing job of 30 years to an Asian American woman and took it out on his wife and then-daughter in the ugliest of ways. He is a racist. He is an adulterous, angry man. Why the hell would Paige and Max want to get that back on track? Sure, Paige is monstrous at times, but she’s not a monster, and there is a difference. Yet this new found “freedom” that Paige is experiencing—this “shift”—isn’t what anyone would call healthy. Noack and Crawford understand this entirely.
Phil Fiorini’s Arnie is so vile and pathetic all at once that you don’t know whether you’re team Paige or team Isaac for most of the production. His physical work is strikingly accurate, and we go from moments where saliva strings down from his mouth while he talks to moments where old Arnie tendencies abruptly and grossly appear, to full-on child mode as excitement builds over “shadow therapy.” Arnie makes you uncomfortable, and Fiorini takes us there without ever feeling like a stereotype.
And finally, inside all of this upheaval, we have Max (who uses the pronouns “ze” and “hir”) transitioning into who ze truly is on the inside, and yet struggling with where ze belongs on the outside and the sway hir older brother still has upon hir. Ahafia Jurkiewicz-Miles, a senior at the University of Central-Missouri, brings a maturity and youthful vulnerability to Max, allowing us to see the emotional rollercoaster that is being a teenager. A particularly delightful example being Max’s reactions when struggling to play the banjo. Jurkiewicz-Miles handles Max with a delicate touch, and I look forward to the contributions they are going to bring to the performing arts community in Kansas City and beyond.
On a very personal note, the last five minutes of HIR undid me in a way that only theater can. Upon exiting, I struggled to hold my emotions in until I was safely in my car and able to expel through tears all I was feeling. As a mother, what Paige had to do took my breath away, and broke my heart. We can’t always forgive our children, and yet would I be strong enough if it were one of my three boys? Couple that with the realization that my kids may not always want me in their life, would I be strong enough to let them go? Noack is mesmerizing in this final moment.
HIR isn’t subtle, and Mac doesn’t take time building up to the big reveal that is always perfectly tailored for the end of Act 1. No, Mac comes at us from the start, crafting a play that knows exactly when to insert humor and allow us, the audience, a cathartic release from the intensity of it all. HIR has a voice, a welcomed voice, and Unicorn’s production is one that will take its place among HIRstory.
HIR runs through June 24th. For more information visit unicorntheatre.org.