(l to r) Francis Guinan and Caroline Neff in Steppenwolf’s ‘You Got Older.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
The global theater community lost a legend this week. On Monday it was announced that longtime Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member and Frasier star John Mahoney, died in hospice care at the age of 77. Despite battling throat cancer, Mahoney was onstage late last fall in The Rembrandt, alongside fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan.
The theater went dark on Monday night, out of respect for the venerated actor who joined Steppenwolf in 1979 and appeared in over 30 productions with the company. That meant a late cancellation of You Got Older, the Chicago premiere of playwright Clare Barron’s quirky dark comedy. One of the production’s final previews, the performance was converted into an impromptu Irish wake for Mahoney in Steppenwolf’s bar. The public was welcomed to attend and celebrate the life of a dynamic and diverse performer.
This context was nearly impossible to divorce from Wednesday’s evening’s opening night for You Got Older. After all, the production stars Francis Guinan, Mahoney’s final Steppenwolf co-star. And because fortune is a perverse mistress, Guinan, playing a character only known as “Dad” in Barron’s Obie Award-winning play, takes on the role of a widower battling – yes – late-stage throat cancer. This critic, and many other seasoned theatergoers in the midweek audience, felt a lump of an emotional kind as the proverbial curtain lifted.
Directed by Jonathan Berry and co-starring the dependably fantastic Caroline Neff as Dad’s daughter Mae, You Got Older is an achingly real portrait of a young woman standing at life’s crossroads. Newly single, freshly unemployed and back in her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest, Mae offers her ailing father love and companionship as she takes an extended break from her own befuddled existence. This fissure is geographical as well as psychological. Sleeping in her sister’s old bedroom, the sexually frustrated woman grapples with a stress-induced rash and a sequence of charged dreams about a nameless Cowboy.
Played by Gabriel Ruiz, the dream sequences serve as erotic comic relief from the rest of the plot’s poignancy. In nearly 10 years of theater criticism, I’m positive this is the first time I’ve ever leveraged the phrase “erotic comic relief” to describe a scene. Barron’s material is completely unique, universal, accessible and awkward with some additional flavors that are all her own.
Neff, whom Steppenwolf wisely decided to invite to join its ensemble in 2016, has been a prolific presence on the Chicago theater scene for years. Her youthful visage and energy betray an experienced and formidable range of talents. After evaluating her work is nearly a dozen productions, I’m convinced there’s no challenge the actress can’t meet. The role of Mae calls for exposure and vulnerability of many varieties, and as the character shows skin, fear, desperation and humor, Neff infuses Mae with an unselfconsciousness that renders the character likable, even admirable. An Ally McBeal for the gallows.
The supporting cast is rounded out by Glenn Davis, as Mae’s local suitor Mac. Audrey Francis, Emjoy Gavino and David Lind play Mae’s respective siblings Hannah, Jenny and Matthew. All of these actors are given limited stage time and use it to assist in the creation of something lovely and painful. Particular kudos to Davis and Francis who earned big laughs on opening night, with a balanced emotional heft that allows their characters to defy one dimension.
But the show, as it were, belongs to Guinan, as it frequently does when one finds him in the Playbill. Francis Guinan joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1979, the same year as his friend and collaborator John Mahoney. The two also shared screen time during Mahoney’s long run on Frasier.
There is a scene toward the end of the second act where an increasingly frail Dad sheds a few subtle tears while discussing the trajectory of his life with Mae. There is no doubt that Guinan’s prodigious talent and emotional range includes the ability to weep on demand. But Wednesday’s night’s performance had something else that the actor was willing to share with his audience. The vulnerability of a man grieving the loss of a friend, dead of the very same disease that afflicts Dad. Guinan did not weep alone. The muffled sobs of hardened theatergoers were audible in the scene’s moments of quiet.
The latest Steppenwolf production of You Got Older would be a terrific success without the ghost of John Mahoney floating around the edges. It’s stripped down, raw human experience across the psychological spectrum. And the material is in the hands of a wildly capable cast and crew. But Mahoney is there, and his creative presence adds an additional layer of urgency. This is one to see.
You Got Older
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 N Halsted St., Chicago
Through March 11
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018 her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.