T his play has an embarrassingly autobiographical origin story,” says playwright Clare Barron in the program for You Got Older, running now at Steppenwolf Theatre. And she runs down the real-life parallels to prove it.
Like her 31-year-old alter ego, Mae, Barron (a) got dumped by her boyfriend; (b) was fired from her job by that same boyfriend, who was also her boss (which sounds like a lawsuit to me, though neither Barron nor Mae goes there); and (c) learned that her dad had an advanced case of cancer, all in short order. Barron and Mae both moved home, where, after what she characterizes as a prolonged taxi down the “free-spirit runway,” Barron finally put away childish things. And so, I guess, does Mae.
I say “I guess” because, although Barron’s program comments are explicit about the rite of passage she experienced in tending to her sick father (“For me, it was the moment where . . . I became an adult”), what if anything happens to Mae isn’t so clear. Yes, she keeps Dad company in the kitchen and the garden. Yet most of her time is taken up in solipsistic fretting about her sex life (41 days without), the lump in her jaw, and the ugly, itchy, bumpy rash that covers her back. Two of those problems seem to be solved simultaneously when she encounters the endlessly accommodating Mac at a bar. In a clever meet-cute, Mac mistakes Mae for her sister, on whom he had a crush in the fourth grade, but quickly adapts when he realizes his error. And as for the rash, he admits he’s actually into oozing pustules.
Mae lets Mac rub salve on her back, but she reserves her deepest erotic energies for the Cowboy who comes to her in her dreams. A retro-macho type in the John Wayne, tie-’er-up-if-she-don’t-behave mode, the Cowboy supplies a gauge of Mae’s infantile sense of helplessness, her desire to be helpless.
And so it goes. We meet Mae’s siblings—bossy older sister Hannah, lesbian PC-language-policeperson Jenny, big friendly lug Matthew—all of whom live outside Seattle and bear a zeitgeisty resemblance to the Tim Robbins-Holly Hunter brood in HBO’s Portland-based Here and Now. They sit around Dad’s bed at the hospital, post-op, demonstrating their family dynamics as well as some sub-Sarah Ruhlian wackiness. Mae herself is engagingly uninhibited when it comes at least to talking about sex: she declines to give any more blow jobs, she says, not for the usual reasons but because they remind her of her mortality as they pile up toward the horizon.
The cumulative effect is wryly entertaining. As Mae’s sex talk indicates, Barron is very good at ingratiating herself even as she allows for a light whiff of edginess.
Still, there’s that strange silence around the central business of You Got Older: Mae’s belated coming of age. We know it’s supposed to happen, if only because an old-style dumb show puts exclamation points on that theme at the end of the play. But as far as I can tell, Mae’s only discernible brush with transformation comes in a single, singularly touching moment when Dad knocks at her bedroom door late one night, unable to sleep and hoping to talk. Her childish egocentrism obstructs a possible communion, and she clearly knows it. Then the moment is gone. Dumb show notwithstanding, Mae doesn’t appear to grow up—she just gets older.
I’ve been thinking about why. One thing I know for sure is that Mae is awfully difficult to parse, given her emotional inarticulateness as written and her guarded-to-sullen affect as embodied by Caroline Neff in Jonathan Berry’s staging. I also wonder whether the strong autobiographical content has misled Barron, deceiving her into thinking that Mae’s struggle is as self-evident to an audience as it must be to her—a classic case of being too close to the material. A point in favor of this theory would be the way Barron approaches the character of Dad: as a nice older fellow with nothing much to say and hardly any inner life at all. In short, as a projection of the father a loving daughter might cherish in her heart. Dad’s vacuity is especially disappointing, by the way, because he’s played by Francis Guinan, a normally fearless actor who communicates all the complexity here of a man waiting for a bus.
Then again, maybe You Got Older is a harbinger of what plays will come to be like in an era when people share photos of their meals on social media. Maybe it’ll be enough to say, “This happened to me. That’s interesting, right?” v