Mae is in rough shape.
She’s gone through a crappy breakup and, because her boyfriend was also her boss, lost her job. Moving back into her childhood home with her widowed father brings all the awkward self-doubt that you’d expect, and on top of that, her dad is ill with aggressive cancer. She’s got a weird rash.
She’s lonely, terrified, and desperately horny.
Mae’s knotty impasse and eventual catharsis form the story of Clare Barron’s dark comedy “You Got Older,” directed by Reba Askari at Mad Horse Theatre Company, in a production that’s by turns outrageously funny and quietly, exquisitely tender.
That word, “tender,” can mean “loving” or “sore,” and “You Got Older” holds equal measures of both.
Homecoming during a personal crisis can be pretty Jungian, a reentry into both the physical structures and the psychological states of our youth, both the rooms and the amorphous desires. And fittingly, Emma Keilty’s sharp set design makes Mad Horse’s intimate space both homey and primal: A table and stools are the focal point center-stage, but warm-toned floor lamps are peppered throughout the risers of the audience, inviting us into an idea of “home” that’s not quite fixed or discrete. The stage floor has been painted with an angular and uneven white shape, like a chalk cave drawing of a house made out of lightning, with a fire pit at one end.
These simple elements make the setting of Mae’s story feel dynamic and between-realms, a place for reckoning with dreams and “reality” alike.
Indeed, sometimes the action here happens in the present tense, as Mae (Allison McCall) talks with her dad (Whip Hubley) about his green peppers or her mom, or with flannelled former schoolmate Mac (Jeff Ruel) about her rash. Other times, the action takes place in a dreamed-up fantasy of being held captive by the strapping cowboy cliché Luke (David John Timm), who ties her up. Just like the walls between Mae’s bedroom and her dad’s, the boundaries between these realms are inconveniently thin, and compartmentalization gets harder and harder.
Barron’s script is frequently hilarious, sometimes punchy or provocative, and often deceptively banal.
When Mae first arrives home, we watch a long, slow dialogue between her and her dad, a tall man with sticking-up gray hair, a scar across his throat, and, in Hubley’s sensitive hands, an innate gentleness. Although there’s lots of huge stuff to talk about, Mae and her dad instead move through a long, tentative chat about leafy greens and hereditary gingivitis, carefully meandering through their uncertainty of how to talk to each other, gradually finding gleams of connection and pleasure in the conversational shallows.
Into scenes like this occasionally come sudden reveals that waver between comedic, affectionate, and uncomfortable (Barron isn’t one to shrink from the ambivalent).
Watch a tableau of Mae at a bar and sitting between the legs of Mac, having her back slathered with ointment by this man whom she’s just met and who happens to have a rash fetish (and who Ruel portrays with nuance and humor). Listen as she tells Mac an old fantasy of being raped by her high-school boyfriend, then mourning his imagined sudden death. Unsettling as it is, Barron plumbs the revelation for psychological complexity and compassion: “I think I just used to think about it,” Mae explains, “when I needed to cry.”
Things get more complex (and more wickedly entertaining) with the arrival of Mae’s sisters – blonde, type-A Hannah (Morgan Fanning) and sensitive Jenny (Lauren Stockless) – and their brash brother Matthew (Benn May). The entire ensemble is excellent. As the siblings hang out in their dad’s hospital room, the ensemble dishes up some absolutely delicious sibling dynamics: they regress, cackle, make fun of each other, talk about penis sizes, and debate what their “family smell” is (musky, oily, wet earth, egg?).
But even as they banter over profanities while their father sleeps, they’re never really that far from the existential – their badinage is about self and other, bodies, sex, family, shared genes playing out before each other’s eyes, and, of course, birth and death themselves. The comedy is low, but (or perhaps because) the stakes are high.
Under Askari’s perceptive direction, these mortal tensions manifest throughout “You Got Older” in extraordinarily physical and vocal performances, equally riotous and affecting.
The hospital room scene is a wonder of ensemble work: the four siblings smirk, snort, and eye-roll their ways into and out of conversations, including beautifully blocked mini-scenes of simultaneous but separate breakout chats that abruptly snap back into full-group synch, everyone once again paying attention to the same thing. Anyone with a family will recognize the truth of how they talk with each other.
And McCall, who’s long been a superb physical actor on a larger scale, also excels at the level of glance and breath, as Mae masks, holds off, rehearses, and relents to her grief.
She’s onstage almost constantly, and her face is a continuous, intimate barometer as it winces and widens, crumbles, and clears. We see in that face how she pleads, hopes, anticipates a pang or worse, and is often just incredulous, as if in disbelief that this, after all, is life.
“It didn’t rain,” she observes gladly, hesitantly optimistic but with the intonation of a question. When she breaks into a rare real, unqualified smile and giggle of delight, we warm along with her.
McCall makes visceral Mae’s wariness, her expectation of pain and her hope for love, and, despite it all, her bravery. Because make no mistake, Mae’s perseverance through her mess is a triumph, as is this production: a swervy, raucous show with a clear eye for what we must go through, and with a sweetness that sneaks up to redeem us all.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Hooray for Halloween
Just in time for Halloween, Snowlion Repertory Company opens “My Witch: Margaret Hamilton’s Stories of Maine, Hollywood, and Beyond!” (Oct 29-31). In case you’re not up on your “Wizard of Oz,” Hamilton played the Wicked Witch of the West – and she has a Maine connection, too. This one-woman show runs at Meetinghouse Arts, in Freeport. FMI: https://www.snowlionrep.org.
Also Halloween-perfect is Tophat Productions’ miniature theater production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” on stage at Mayo Street Arts in Portland on Oct. 29. We all know the story. But do we know it with all the characters sung by one classically trained opera singer, David Worobec, who moves their tiny, perfect doll-actors around with his fingers? I didn’t think so. FMI: https://bit.ly/3ARIOSR.
And for those whose tastes in fright tend toward a more psychological approach to scary: A new film called “Bergman Island” follows two American filmmakers (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) as they journey to the island where master Ingmar Bergman made his most beloved films. Is it any wonder that the characters’ realities and illusions become, shall we say, fluid? Screening in-person at the Portland Museum of Art, Oct. 22-24. FMI: https://bit.ly/3jaOHUY.
— Megan Grumbling