Salt Lake Acting Company's ‘HIR’ is wildly comic and disturbingly provocative

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Austin Archer, Richard Scott, Liggera Edmonds-Allen, and Christy Summerhays in Salt Lake Acting Company's production of "Hir." Playwright Taylor Mac's dark contemporary comedy unfolds the story of what happens after a veteran returns home to find his mother has been unbound from his tyrannical father — aided by Max, a young trans sibling.

Isaac, a recently returned veteran, keeps vomiting into the kitchen sink. His mother, Paige, exults in the chaotic clutter she has created from the family home in a constant dance that celebrates her liberation from domestic abuse. Isaac’s transgender brother, Max, proudly shows off a newfound masculinity and announces a plan to go live in a “radical fairy commune.” And former patriarch Arnold smiles absently in a corner, wearing a nightgown, rainbow-colored wig and garish clown makeup.

How you react to the “absurd realism” of Taylor Mac’s outrageously in-your-face “HIR,” making its regional premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company, depends entirely on how you relate to the members of this very dysfunctional American family. Yes, they often make you laugh, although you may wonder what you’re laughing at. But do they make contact with something deeper and more human that makes knowing them ultimately worthwhile? There are moments of warmth and human connection, but are they enough?

Mac sees the play as a portrait of America in transition, and one of the essential elements is a more fluid way of looking at gender.

“Max, explain your ambiguity to your brother,” Paige tells the shocked Isaac, but she also says, “Max has saved me; I am a father and a mother.” Her pride in Max is what softens Paige and makes her accessible.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake Acting Company's production of "Hir."

The other plot pillar of “HIR” is domestic abuse. Arnold abused Paige and Max for years while Isaac was gone, and the abuse intensified when he lost his longtime plumbing job to a Chinese-American woman. Then he had a stroke. Paige, abandoning all her domestic responsibilities, tries to heal by making him subservient. “We don’t do order,” Paige tells the distressed Isaac in the explosion of household paraphernalia that once was their living room. The colorful excess of Cara Pomeroy’s set alone is worth the price of admission.

This situation puts Paige and Isaac on a collision course. He’s already hurting from his stint in mortuary affairs in the Marines, where he returned broken body parts to their families. “I just need to have my home,” he pleads with his mother.

The way the actors approach these characters makes all the difference in the way we perceive them, and under Tracy Callahan’s tight and perceptive direction, which takes advantage of every opportunity for character interaction, the cast of “HIR” manages to soften and humanize this family. As the first local transgender person to portray a transgender character, Liggera Edmonds-Allen revels in the chance to celebrate hir emerging identity as Max. Although emotionally wounded, Austin Archer’s Isaac provides a steadying influence and constantly tries to connect with his family. Instead of remaining passive, Richard Scott’s Arnold uses constantly changing body language and facial expressions to integrate himself into the action. It seems especially ironic that Scott, a dean at Salt Lake Community College who relies on words, is largely deprived of them here; he admits the role has been an interesting challenge.

The most difficult job falls to Christy Summerhays. Paige is not a likable character, but Summerhays gives her an exuberance for her new life and energy to heal and move on that make her at least understandable.

Spencer Potter’s grab-bag costumes, Jesse Portillo’s bright, brassy lighting, and Jennifer Jackson’s funky circus music flesh out the world of “HIR.”

“We are on a perpetual trip to the unknown,” Paige says at one point. “HIR” offers that kind of adventure if audiences are willing to go on the journey.

‘HIR’<br>Insightful direction and perceptive performances ground the absurd realism and get to the heart of Taylor Mac’s off-the-wall comedy-drama.<br>When • Reviewed on Feb. 11; plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m. through March 11. Additional performances Feb. 27 and March 6 at 7:30 p.m. and March 10 at 2 p.m.<br>Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $24 to $43 with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org; contains adult language<br>Running time • Two hours (including an intermission)