I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The cliches of American mid-20th-century psychological realism are all present in Robert Anderson's 1968 chestnut. There's the distant Babbittlike father obsessed with social climbing, the Major Life Event--in this case the death of his sweet, conciliatory wife--that brings the family together to explore their history and grievances, and the peculiarly American notion that life gets better the further west one moves. But despite these contrivances, Steppenwolf's revival is one of the most emotionally jolting productions I've seen in months. In Anna D. Shapiro's sensitive staging, the set pieces are stripped to the barest essentials, which allows this show about old wounds to breathe on new terms.
John Mahoney's performance as Tom Garrison--a man his son says "always lived on the edge of exasperation"--is a marvel of carefully constructed nuance. He's proud of his ability to provide for his kids in ways his own alcoholic father did not, but the rage of the abandoned orphan boy roils just beneath the surface. Tom has a push-pull relationship with his deeply conflicted son, Gene, who acts as the narrator of this memory play. Kevin Anderson never succumbs to the temptation to milk Gene's monologues for pathos, and he wears the character's confused sense of defeat like a well-worn overcoat. The final wrenching encounter between the two is simply masterful.