Theatre in Review

Friday, 09 February 2018 16:24

Deliciously Good Performances Score in Steppenwolf’s You Got Older Featured

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Ensemble member Caroline Neff (Mae) and Gabriel Ruiz (Cowboy) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of You Got Older by Clare Barron, directed by Jonathan Berry. Ensemble member Caroline Neff (Mae) and Gabriel Ruiz (Cowboy) in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere production of You Got Older by Clare Barron, directed by Jonathan Berry. Michael Brosilow

Millennial angst is in the air, and never better captured than in Clare Barron’s autobiographical “You Got Older.” You will laugh at its depictions of a young woman less-than-dexterously navigating her way through the trials of reaching a grown-up state in this first-rate production at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Mae, a 27-year-old unemployed lawyer (dumped, then fired, by her boyfriend and boss) is played by Caroline Neff. Back home in Seattle to nurse her dad through an episode of throat cancer, Mae carries most of the load for the play, a self-portrait of Barron that the author put together a few years ago to clear her writer’s block. Such works risk veering toward a self-indulgent exercise, but You Got Older largely avoids this.

It is true that in “You Got Older” we get more of a slice-of-life than a play with a plot. But most of the scenes - some real, others imagined - are hilariously funny or touchingly insightful (with maybe a couple clunkers). Awesomely fun is a recurring erotic fantasy, which arrives in the form of intermittent scenes with the hyper-masculine, bearded Cowboy in leather vest and chaps, lasso at the ready, who plays out Mae’s deep-seated desires. Gabriel Ruiz is over the top good as Cowboy.

The manly Cowboy contrasts with scenes with a real-life bar pick-up, the inept Mac, whose fetishes dovetail perfectly with Mae’s insecurities. Glenn Davis is comically nerdy, climbing clumsily into her bedroom window, then falling asleep before the tryst even gets started.

In the background, serious life issues play out. Mae’s Dad (Francis Guinan) has throat cancer, and its uncertain what outcome he will have. In Dad’s hospital room we meet Mae’s family following the surgery – two sisters and a brother – with an extended exposure to family culture. This perhaps overly long scene includes a humorous “picnic” (avocados and grapefruit), a peculiar “sniff-out” as the siblings try to determine “the family smell,” and the revelation that the family likes to dance together.

Another scene plays out somewhat gratuitously, as Mae and Dad listen to a four-minute recording of Regina Spekter's Firewood, played on an unamplified iPhone at a level where lyrics are barely audible. Dad has declared it the "theme song" of his illness. The sentimental concept of sharing a meaningful song is conveyed; but the dramatic impact is questionable. A closing dance scene with the four siblings is likewise more important to the author than the audience.  

In one scene of serious emotion, Mae argues with her father over how to approach a job interview. Mae plans to Skype it in; Dad advises going in person. When Mae out-argues him on which approach is better, Dad declares, “This conversation is over,” and withdraws, closing the door in her face.  Mae shouts at the door to no avail, “Admit it, Dad. You’re wrong!”

Neff’s performance is a standout, lacing with dry ironic tone the world weariness that captures the essence of the “generation next’s” view of its forbears, and her own struggles as life turns out to be far less than originally advertised.

Barron won a 2015 Obie Award for the play, and it is easy to see why. Jonathan Berry has pulled a well-crafted ensemble performance by  Audrey Francis and Emjoy Gavino (Mae’s sisters Hannah and Jenny), and David Lind (brother Matthew). The production runs through March 11 at

You Got Older’s production team has perhaps even exceeded the script in excellence: Meghan Raham (scenic design), Alison Siple (costume design), Marcus Doshi (lighting design), Matt Chapman (sound design & original music), Rasean Davonte Johnson (projection design), Gigi Buffington (company vocal coach) and Sasha Smith (intimacy choreography). Casting director JC Clementz deserves special acknowledgement for the great chemistry on stage.  

Last modified on Friday, 09 February 2018 20:48
Bill Esler

A native Chicagoan, Bill Esler has been a printer and publisher for more than 35 years. He has B.A. in English with a concentration in writing from Knox College. 



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