The curtain rises to reveal a stage strung with chaos. My body tenses slightly, and I glance apprehensively at the friend who invited me. He glances back. Neither of us know what to expect from a slice-of-life drama featuring Issac, a war-traumatized vet home from Afghanistan; Max, his gender-fluid younger sibling; Arnold, their stroke-disabled father who abused them all for years; and Paige, their manic-depressive mother.
The show is Hir (pronounced ‘here’; the play takes its name from the gender-neutral possessive pronoun), produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Written by Taylor Mac, the play tips its hand from the first glimpses of the stage and the performers: you are about to enter a world where things are desperately wrong. The author specifies the play’s genre as ‘absurd realism’, and the absurdity of the situation is darkly comic as the characters of the play struggle in increasingly erratic ways to come to terms with the chaos that marks their lives.
The story opens when Issac comes home from the war to find his childhood home in shambles. His mother, Paige, has stopped cleaning anything as a reaction against the abuse and strict perfectionism of her husband, Arnold, prior to his stroke. Issac soon finds out that his mother has been hiding everything significant from him in his absence: their home is a pigsty, his father’s supposedly ‘minor’ stroke has in fact left him unable to speak or care for himself, and the family is destitute. Soon Issac’s younger sibling Max appears on the scene. When Issac left, Max was his sister Maxine. Now Max is gender-fluid. This, too, was a secret kept from Issac. On the day that Issac arrives home, Paige and Max have already made plans to see a local art exhibit. Issac declines to go, and Paige and Max leave him at home with Arnold, on the condition that Issac resist the temptation to clean. Issac agrees, but does not keep his word. Everything else that happens arises from that broken promise.
It seems wrong to say that I enjoyed the play. How can I claim to enjoy the dramatization of that much pain? I learned from the play. I was grieved by the play. It mesmerized me because it was a finely acted, brilliantly written, expertly produced play. But I did not enjoy it. I saw sin and its consequences acted with crystalline artistry. It caused me to wonder: how can this writer, who likely does not believe that there is such a thing as sin, do a better job of portraying sin than any Christian production I have seen?
Because, believe me, all the pain and death of sin, and the immense brokenness of the world, were fully present in Hir. Issac suffers from PTSD. Arnold abused his family for years and the rage still boils below the fog of his new-found disability. Paige, bitter and exhausted from the years of abuse, has turned Arnold’s abuse back on him and now refuses him basic cleanliness and dignity. Max, lonely, hurt, and confused, shoulders the awful task of diplomacy between all members of a family torn apart when the sin of the father is visited on the children.
What response is appropriate? I sat and joined in the uncomfortable laughter of the audience at times, but I wept by the end of the show. I watched one couple get up and walk out, but I could not tear my eyes away from the wreckage before me. I disagreed with practically every philosophy presented in this production, but I found my presuppositions challenged by it.
Great art should change us in some way. When you encounter a truly exceptional creation, you have interacted in some way with the deepest parts of someone’s soul, and that should affect you in some way. Hir was great art, and it did move me. It made me view gender-fluid persons with much more compassion (that it took a secular production to make me feel that, and not the church, is a discussion for another day). It made me wonder why Christians, who more than any other group of artists should understand the wages of sin, are so very bad at portraying it.
It’s hard to see the glory of the cross and beauty of redemption unless we see the heinousness of our sin. The question, for me, is no longer, ‘Should we portray darkness’, but rather, ‘How dark should we allow our art to be in our attempt to highlight the depravity of the human condition’? It takes a grace-healed eye to see glory and mercy, but almost any person can see how sin can destroy. What if Christian artists, instead of being afraid that showing sin would glamorize it, realized that accurate depictions of sin and it consequences strip themselves of their own glamour? How will we ever feel our need of a Savior unless we feel the sickness of our souls?
Because, oh how Hir longed for, but was denied, redemption. How it longed for grace, but got only unforgiveness. How it ached for wholeness and health, but found only fractures and disease. Each of these characters (and their real-life, in-our-communities counterparts) were dying slow and agonizing deaths as the bill for their sin came due.
No Christian production has ever made me feel the weight of sin the way Hir did. If we dared to strip away the masks of decency and decorum we place on sin, and expose it for the hideous death it is, how might a similar weight be used in the hands of artists who know both the cost, and the payment, of our sin?