Dysfunctional families are pretty much a dime-a-dozen on stage. In Clare Barron’s You Got Older, however, the dysfunction is not attributed to family, but to life in its many ups and downs and unexpected turns. While my first thought was to compare this play to other shows that revolve around family — Fun Home, a part of The Wilbury Group’s previous season, came to mind – this one avoided most of the familiar family conflict tropes. Currently running in repertory with Dance Nation at Wilbury, You Got Older, directed by Wendy Overly, takes a different approach to painting a portrait of womanhood. Though the two plays were written by the same playwright, they are tonally quite different; while Dance Nation is satirical and pretty wild, You Got Older is more grounded and realistic — it is, after all, semi-autobiographical.
At perhaps the lowest point of her life, having just lost her boyfriend and her job, Mae (Rachel Dulude) returns home to care for her father (Jim O’Brien) who is undergoing cancer treatment. As her life hits a standstill, she is filled with frustration — sexual and otherwise. She escapes from her anxieties through vivid fantasies starring a cowboy (Teddy Lytle), as well as bluntly oversharing with her sister’s childhood friend in a bar (Dave Rabinow as the weird, but sincere Mac), which is later followed up by a failed attempt at a hookup.
Dulude’s Mae is teetering on the edge of breaking down. At one point, she discusses how funny it is that her life fell apart as her father embarked on treatment, and she’s somewhere between laughing and crying.
Along with her awkward encounters with her paramours, both real and imagined, levity comes in the form of her siblings, Hannah (Beth Alieniello), Jenny (Rachel Tondreault) and Matthew (Zachary Gibb), who attend their father’s final treatment session. To pass the time, they discuss their distinct family smell, the sweater-knitting curse that dooms relationships, and an analogy between avocado pits and penises. Their banter feels natural and familiar, like any sibling reunion. However, within the levity, there are melancholy moments sprinkled in, such as Hannah revealing that an ex-boyfriend of hers died and questions Mae faces about her future plans.
The sprinkling in of joy among sadness — and, for that matter, sadness among joy — is central to the play. Near the end, Mae, for the first time in a long time, has a moment of happiness over her new winter boots — not any major life event, just something simple and sweet — but her joy comes to an abrupt halt upon receiving some news from her father in a beautifully acted phone call (the way O’Brien’s face crumbles alone makes this scene heartbreaking to watch). Yet, before the play ends, another moment of happiness comes in the form of Jenny’s wedding, as the four siblings have that dance party they had always talked about. It’s not entirely clear how far in the future this is, or whether their father is still with them, but regardless, it leaves the audience on a joyful note even after the previous scene.
Though on the surface, You Got Older has little to do with its partner show other than sharing the same playwright, it does tack on to the statements about girlhood Dance Nation puts forth, as Mae struggles with balancing the needs of others with her own needs — being a caretaker and also taking care of herself.
You Got Older runs in repertory with Dance Nation at the Wilbury Theatre Group through Dec. 22. For tickets, visit thewilburygroup.org.