After seeing Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of Clare Barron’s poignant play, You Got Older, I felt the need to text my sister.
Much like Barron’s protagonist, Mae (Caroline Neff), my sister, whose name incidentally also begins with an ‘M,’ had to spend a summer as a young adult at home with our sick father. Much like Barron’s play, our dad had also been recently diagnosed with cancer, making the summer’s living arrangements fraught with terrifying potential. Our dad is not Francis Guinan; however, Guinan definitely captures the mystical concoction of gentle bravery, humor, and grace that have become my father’s great strengths in his battle with cancer. My dad is, thankfully, still alive, and doing well. I won’t spoil how Guinan’s character fares in Barron’s play.
Needless to say, audiences who have been in similar positions will witness the quiet details of You Got Older with heightened attention. Watching Jonathan Berry’s production, I was astonished at how thoughtfully Neff and Guinan have crafted the layers of their characters. Both of them are in the midst of having their lives radically changed (Mae has also lost her job, her boyfriend, and has developed a wicked rash). Both of them are also exceptionally lonely, although they don’t want to admit it to each other. Watching each actor navigate these feelings is, at many times throughout the play, quite beautiful.
What motivated me to want to contact my sister goes deeper, though, than the relevance and parallels at play in Barron’s carefully observed and insightful play. It made me wish that I had reached out to my sister more when she was facing similar circumstances. She may not have been tasked with helping care for our dad, but she still was face-to-face with the scariness and uncertainty of his treatment more than I was. I should have been there for her, just as she was there for both of my parents. Clearly, the reality of You Got Older certainly can get under your skin and make you consider how you’ve chosen to spend the years you’ve been alive.
This reality is realized by a talented team. Aided by a stalwart cast, Berry nails the intimacy of these characters and their lives. He has mined Barron’s play for all of its subtext, and the result is a richly realized and richly real story about seemingly insurmountable obstacles that must still be faced, head-on. To its detriment, at times, Steppenwolf’s stage seems to swallow up each scene. Perhaps by design, there is a smallness to Meghan Raham’s set, which isolates different rooms within Dad’s house and within the hospital on small, traveling, flats. The distance is double-edged however. It certainly heightens much of the loneliness under the surface, but it also can disconnect you from the action.
To ensure that the evening isn’t too somber, Barron has injected You Got Older with Mae’s own fantasies (a cowboy played by Gabriel Ruiz) as well as a particularly humorous scene with Mae and her siblings (Audrey Francis, Emjoy Gavino and David Lind). The humor helps balance the play, even if it is still grounded in often painful truths.
Well-written and well-acted, You Got Older is a fine example of Steppenwolf’s commitment to telling stories about how we live now through high-quality, ensemble acting. With two leads willing to embrace Barron’s fresh and honest play, it’s hard not to be touched by a story that should speak to all audiences: We all grow up. We all get older. We all move forward.
You Got Older continues through March 11 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets run $20-$89 and are available at www.steppenwolf.org or by calling the box office at 312-335-1650.