Taylor Mac’s fast-paced dramedy explores the dissolving dynamics of a traditional family. We are introduced to the family when the oldest son Isaac comes home after being dishonorably discharged from the Marines. His mother, Paige, welcomes him to a much different home than when he left: clothes piled on the floor, dishes molding in the sink, and the air conditioner perpetually blasting freezing cold into the house. Isaac’s once-sister, Maxine, is now Max – a transitioning teen who is just finding hir voice. The use of gender-neutral pronouns “hir” for he/she and “ze” for he/she are prevalent throughout the text as Isaac comes to grip with his new brother. Amidst all the chaos, Isaac is hit with another change – his father, Arnold, has had a stroke and is just a shadow of his former self.
The dynamic of the play presents itself in the beginning, in the dialogue surrounding Max’s transition. Max’s moody teenage comments are balanced by Paige’s quirky declarations, with punctuation provided by grunts and occasional words offered by Arnold. Through all this, Isaac’s PTSD is triggered – mostly by the blender, which causes him to rush over to the sink and vomit. This doesn’t escape Paige’s notice, and unlike a typical mother, occasionally turns the blender back on to trigger Isaac.
Perhaps the most startling image Isaac comes face-to-face with – even surpassing his surprise at Max’s transition – is the condition of his father. Arnold had always been in control; after his stroke, Paige’s “care” consisted of continued emasculations – hosing Arnold down in front of the house when he soiled himself, dressing him in women’s clothing and garish makeup, and spraying him with water, much like a dog, when she was displeased with him. Paige’s character arc does not much surpass this; along with her treatment of Arnold, her insistence at keeping a messy household and not being financially aware paint the picture of a woman who perhaps has gone a little mad.
Arnold provides some comic relief throughout the text, interjecting grunts and repeating words spoken by other members of his family. He clearly doesn’t appreciate Paige’s presence, as he speaks more freely to Isaac when Paige is gone. When speaking to his oldest son, he can utter short phrases instead of single words. This lets us know that Arnold is most likely very aware of the treatment he is receiving from Paige, but can do nothing about it.
Max’s character provides the others with a chance for change. Max is constantly pushing the boundaries of Isaac’s limited experience with tolerance, despite Paige’s occasional humorous comments surrounding Max: “I credit the Cheetos. How could we feed our children fluorescent food and not expect a little gender confluence?” Max’s demeanor in the beginning of the play does evolve past the typical moody, conflicted teenager stage: instead, Max becomes the glue holding the family together as it swiftly falls apart.
While Paige continues to treat Arnold like a child, dismiss Max’s feelings and Isaac’s experiences “picking up body parts” in the Mortuary Affairs department of the Marines, Mac reveals the plot surrounding Paige and Arnold – not only was Arnold a strict man, but also a cheater and a wife-beater. Occasionally, we find out, Arnold had turned his fists to his children. Despite the fact that he doesn’t deserve it, Paige says, she still cares for him – in her own way. Her perceived battiness traces back to a very real trauma she and her children continually experienced in the family dynamics prior to the start of the play. While there’s not much of a character arc where Paige is concerned, this revelation instead changes the mindset of the reader regarding Paige’s actions.
Isaac’s reactions to his new home life mirror those of the reader; he is the least fantastical character in the play. Where Max is numb to the makeup on hir father, Isaac reacts with shock and disgust, quickly wiping Arnold’s face with his sleeve. Although prohibited by Paige, Isaac cleans the house while she is away, making the house into a home again. Isaac cleans his father and cares for him in a dignified manner, though Isaac recognizes that Arnold’s treatment of his family was never so pleasant.
Mac takes on these four conflicting characters with ease and transforms the dramatic events and feelings of his characters into something far more humorous. This play could easily be a dark drama, were it not for Mac’s choices in how these characters are portrayed. Instead, the reader is given a dark subject matter made palatable and enjoyable.
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