TAMPA — Taylor Mac's Hir eschews the typical dysfunctional family narrative to sensationally examine, through absurd realism, rotted American dreams. The Jobsite Theater production directed by David Jenkins is one of the best to grace a Tampa Bay stage in a long time.
How can a play about the ostracization of transgender people, gender theory, the declining middle class, family dynamics, veteran PTSD and abuse be so weightless and hilarious?
Hir (pronounced "here") opens with Isaac, a cisgender and straight 20-something, returning — not so honorably — from Afghanistan, where he picked up body parts for the Marines and "experimented" with crystal meth.
When Isaac (Robert Spence Gabriel) gets home, much has changed. Father Arnold (Ned Averill-Snell) had a debilitating stroke. His teen sister is no longer Maxine but rather gay transmasculine sibling Max (Salem Brophy). Mother Paige (Roxanne Fay) is "homeschooling" the teen, learning to break from the "male-dominated hegemonic paradigm." And the home is a literal mess.
So, Paige sits Isaac down. Employing humor as she does throughout, she explains there are several genders, and transmasculine Max uses "ze" in place of "she" or "he" and "hir" in place of "her" or "him," stressing the importance of getting pronouns right.
That scene is repeated in the two-act play: Paige — an outstanding Fay — maniacally and often tells her new knowledge, stealing Max's thunder. Ze explains to Isaac that Paige is appropriating hir experience and how the exhaustion of being Paige's teacher is weighing on hir.
Liberation can come at the heavy cost of catching others up. New York playwright Mac, a 2017 Pulitzer drama finalist who uses "judy" as pronouns, drives home how some can be relegated in their story. Many trans people — really any marginalized people — see when allies, no matter how well-meaning, educate others without amplifying and crediting the marginalized voices from which they learned.
Max is still a silly teen, though. Brophy, a transmasculine Eckerd College graduate making a professional debut, deftly handles the humor of hormonal years with the added weight of transitioning. Max bounces from brotherly banter to the poignant: "I mean, how can you belong somewhere if you've grown up in a place where you never belong?"
And then there's the diaper-wearing patriarch in a sloppy nightgown and clownish makeup, grunting in the corner.
"It used to be you could be a mediocre straight white man and be guaranteed a certain amount of success," Paige tells Isaac. "But now you actually have to improve yourself."
Since Arnold wouldn't, instead inflicting his anger over the changing world onto customers, he lost his plumbing job — to a Chinese-American woman. ("It was fantastic," Paige says.) That, however, just ramped up his domestic abuse.
But the stroke mollified Arnold, and after a lifetime of brutality, Paige turned him into a clown. When Isaac later asks why the family hasn't applied for disability, Max quips: "She thinks that's what he gets for hating on socialism all the time."
Ryan Finzelber deliciously designed the suffocating disarray of the set's living room and kitchen — strewn clothes, stains and takeout, childish obscenities spelled in fridge magnets, a book with Alan Cumming's face propped against the microwave.
The play is an apt struggle of the past and the future, as characters attempt to restore their home, destroy, forget or change history. It's clear you can't vanish the past to push toward the future, and no gags can fully erase troubles. When it erupts, the intimacy of the black-box Shimberg Playhouse pulls you right in.
Hir is hilarious — drawing near-constant laughter from the sold-out crowd on opening night — but the play strikes deep on the pains of a changing middle-class home. That comedic setup does little to lessen the tragedy, and just as well.
Contact Ashley Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2943. Follow @ashleycdye.