Playwright: Clare Barron
At: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650, Steppenwolf.org; $20-$89. Runs through: March 11
In the second half of Clare Barron's You Got Older, there's a sex scene that's at once tender, awkward, funny, sad and slightly cruel. Recently fired attorney Mae ( Caroline Neff ), is holed up in her sister's childhood bedroom. Her dad ( Francis Guinan ) is in the bedroom next door, dying of tracheal cancer. Mae hasn't been touched romantically in months, but she's having a hard time getting in the mood. Her explanation of why is candid:
"I feel," she tells Glenn ( Mac Davis ), "like every blowjob I give is a blowjob closer to death."
The line is a collision at the intersection of sex and mortality. It's also a line that speaks to the troubling issues rolling insistently through You Got Older. Moving back home care for her father after losing her job, Mae's life is in a mire. She's buffeted by problems that require grown-up coping mechanisms; financial insecurity, heartbreak, a dying parent and her own health issues are among them.
Not only is Mae ill-equipped to deal, she doesn't even have the words to articulate what she's going through. So it goes when you veer out of your 20s and into your 30s andto put it crudelyshit invariably starts getting real. Mae's go-to means of coping involves a fantasy Cowboy ( Gabriel Ruiz ) who she conjures in vivid, livid sex dreams. He's rough with her, but he's also taking care of her.
Directed with an astute, thoughtful, understated hand by Jonathan Berry, You Got Older has an often gentle feel, even when it's addressing the harshest of life's issues. Mae and siblings Jenny ( Emjoy Gavino ), Hannah ( Audrey Francis ) and Matthew ( David Lind ) all love their father dearly. There are no August: Osage County meltdowns or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf eviscerations. Still, the more you think on You Got Older, its insistent reminder of what waits for us all becomes ever more intrusive.
Like Mae, you can put off the milestones of adulthood: Buying a house, having children, taking vows, getting on the partner track at work. But faced with a parent's imminent death, there's no escape from the relentless passage of time and the fact that childlike though we might feel, childhoodwith all its infinite hopes and dreamsis dead. For Mae's family, that's a bitter pill to swallow. Nobody can quite face what lies ahead for their fatheror themselves.
Barron's perceptive, candid exploration of Mae's sexuality amid these fears balanced on a knife edge between hilarity and sorrow. The mutual seduction between Mae and Glenn is messy, clumsy, gross and beautiful. Her fantasy interludes with The Cowboy is a duet of tenderness with a side of domination.