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by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Taylor Mac. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: $20-$89. Runs through: Aug. 20

The phenomenon of "paradigm shift" occurs when an object undergoes a perceived change after being observed from a different angle—the scientific equivalent of the adage about seeing things from the other person's point of view. Be warned that several such transformations are embedded in Taylor Mac's portrait of the unlucky Conner clan.

Family patriarch Arnold once ruled his blue-collar domain with the authority of a reigning monarch; however, a stroke precipitated by his stubborn claim to alpha-male dominance has delivered him into the care of his long-abused wife Paige, whose emancipation finds its expression in a 180-degree reversal of the conditions associated with her former oppression. Tidiness has been replaced by disorder, clean crockery and neatly folded laundry by unwashed dishes and scattered lines, and dawn-to-dusk television by museum trips and art projects. These shared activities mostly involve Paige and 17-year-old Max ( who identifies as transgender ), participation on public excursions by the convalescent Arnold—nowadays garbed in tattered nightgowns and diapers, rainbow wig and cake-frosting makeup, his medication emerging from a blender and his showers from a garden hose—having grown, well, problematic.

Audiences may initially echo the horrified response of 24-year-old Isaac Conner upon returning from Afghanistan with a dishonorable discharge, a record of drug use and PTSD engendered by three tours retrieving shattered body parts. As he strives to restore the home he remembers, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that his recollections were based in artifice from the very beginning. When Arnold is not sedated, evidence of his bullying resurfaces—making Paige's method of disciplining her husband by spanking him or spraying him with water seem downright benevolent by comparison with his once-customary practice of slamming malefactors against the cardboard walls of their tract house constructed on landfill.

The cast assembled by Steppenwolf director Hallie Gordon for this Chicago premiere are adept at giving the appearance of isolation, but Mac is generous enough to distinguish these victims of social and economical change from other unhappy families—the Voynitskis, the Tyrones or the Westons. Listen closely and you will hear the briefest of references to a surrounding community—neighbors who "don't say hi, but wave," homeless vets at the bus station and an online group of "gay anarchists"—offering the possibility of assistance. Who knows? You could be one of those nearby residents gingerly overcoming the fear of crippling despair seeping over the back fence into your yard.

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