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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Steppenwolf Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Baritones Unbound

Mary Beth Fisher, Tom Irwin, and Mildred Marie Langford
Photo by Michael Brosilow
It's a scene we've seen before—a politician making a public confession to a sex scandal as the wronged wife stands in the background. Another pol caught "hiking the Appalachian Trail," if you will. If you've ever wondered (as you surely have) what's said behind closed doors at home after that, Bruce Norris's new play offers one likely scenario. Domesticated is more than just schadenfreude at the fall of the mighty; it's an exploration of the roles of the male and the female among the entire animal kingdom. It begins with a tween girl (we soon learn she's the daughter of the politician and his wife) giving a slide presentation in a school gym—possibly she's at a science fair. Her topic is the mating habits of various mammals and she includes a great many numbered examples, occasionally citing her own parents as an example with the action cutting to a scene involving the family. The girl, Cassidy, (Emily Chang) shows how in many species, the female is dominant—in one, the male has even lower status than the offspring. Norris's point is that relationships between the sexes are complicated, nuanced—perhaps never to be figured out. The wife, Judy, has had fairly a traditional view of commitment and fidelity and believed her husband Bill (Tom Irwin) was in sync with her. As is obvious from the get-go, Bill has had a very different view on that topic and throughout the first act we learn revelation after revelation illustrating how nuanced his values and varied his sexual tastes actually are.

After Bill's confession and resignation speech, he's nearly speechless throughout the first act. Mostly, we listen to Judy and older daughter Casey (Melanie Neilan) vent their anger at him as he cowers in shame. As Judy, Mary Beth Fisher gives one of the performances of the year, with contempt for her slime ball husband oozing out acidly. Seeing the story entirely from the side of those who do not necessarily have Bill's interests at heart—including the mother of the prostitute who was gravely injured during a session with Bill and an Oprah-like TV host exploiting the story—we start to feel some sympathy for the man. After a full act of enduring in silence the abuse of his wife, older daughter and others, Bill finally speaks up to say, "I don't seem to be making you happy" and moves out of the house.

Act two is told mostly from Bill's point of view, opening in a bar where he's unloading his complaints to a bored female bartender (Rae Gray in one of multiple roles). As we listen, we learn this guy is an irredeemable misogynist. Norris is known for his biting satire on those who claim privilege and Bill is a prime example, believing he is allowed to behave pretty much as he wants. At the same time, Norris is no kinder to those around him. Beyond Judy, who's published a tell-all book, there's the prostitute's mother—adept at using the legal system and mass media to profit from the accident—the TV host (Mildred Marie Langford), who knows an audience-building story when she sees one, an angry trans-woman (Esteban Andres Cruz) and Bill and Judy's mercenary attorney friend Jackie (Karen Janes Woditsch). It's a world so bleak, so misogynistic it makes Neil LaBute look like Frank Capra.

But if there's any hope, empathy, or lessons to be learned from Domesticated it's that our societal notions of monogamous marriage and partnership are hard to live up to, and that the lessons of other species show that we shouldn't assume anything when it comes to the roles of the sexes. Norris directs his own work here, and he proves to be as good at as any of the fine directors who have staged his play before. The timing is perfect and Tom Irwin's performance as Bill matches Fisher's in its sharpness and nuance. The concept of staging all the scenes within a high school gym—with furniture and props rolled on—seems like it shouldn't work but it does, giving a cinematic flow to action played against Todd Rosenthal's set design.

"A wonderful life," it's not. But if you're in the mood for some very dark humor along with your holiday beverages, it's a worthy addition to the Steppenwolf tradition of counterprogramming against traditional holiday fare. To say it's 180 degrees away from the likes of A Christmas Carol is not strong enough—can we redefine geometry to find an angle even farther away? It's insufficient to say not to bring the kids; safer to see this one alone or with a friend of the same gender.

Domesticated plays Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through February 7, 2016. For tickets, visit or call 312-335-1650.

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