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Review: Steppenwolf's STRAIGHT WHITE MEN Examine Their Role in Society

As you walk into the theatre for Steppenwolf's production of Jean Lee's Straight White Men, you are offered ear plugs. Why? There is extremely loud music playing and it contains lyrics that could certainly be considered offensive to some. Starting off this way has likely, as we are told by two gender fluid actors, made "some of you" uncomfortable. The idea is that we all live in varying levels of comfort in our society based on our race, sexual identity, or social status.

In this 90-minute piece, we meet four straight white men -- Ed (Alan Wilder) and his sons Matt (Brian Slaten), Jake (Madison Dirks), and Drew (Ryan Hallahan) as they gather for Christmas. We learn that their progressive parents, especially their mother, raised them to be open minded in their understanding of the world. And in doing so, they were also taught to not abuse their privilege. And, according to their father, they learned to appreciate what they have because of it.

Lee, who also directs, has written a script that gives us charming and intense glimpses at these men in their element. They share a deep comfort level with each other and have a strong family bond. Their interaction exemplifies the "boys will boys" philosophy. While we watch them rough house and reenact childhood jokes, skits, and traditions, we also see how they are dealing with adulthood. They are also doing their best to support their father who now lives alone after their mother's passing.

There were times when I felt unsure of what Lee wanted to say. Themes on masculinity, insecurity, and uncertainty about gender in society are all explored here. What Lee shows us is that white, straight men are now a segment of society that faces isolation and discomfort, but clearly for different reasons. The story takes a deep look at oldest brother Matt's apparent lack of motivation and fear of success - at least in his brothers' eyes. Matt claims he is content, but his brothers see his life as wasting away.

Under Lee's direction, the piece moves steadily and we are easily drawn into the family dynamic. Wilder is a delight as the father who truly loves his sons and shows it at every step. He participates in their antics, while keeping them in check, and displays warm touches that show his adoration. Slaten's nuanced portrayal of Matt makes you empathize with him and his struggle and conflict. Hallahan and Dirks have nice chemistry in their scenes together and each brings a sincerity that makes the less likable qualities of their characters tough to watch.

Are they right? Is Matt not living up to his potential because he doesn't want to abuse his privilege? Or is Matt right in saying that he has found happiness in his current temp job, while living with his father? In the end, the complex answer is left up to the audience. And it's a compelling journey to get to there.

Straight White Men runs through March 19 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For tickets and more information visit www.steppenwolf.org.

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