Caroline Neff (Mae) and Gabriel Ruiz (Luke) in Clare Barron's You Got Older, directed by Jonathan Berry, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
Caroline Neff (Mae) and Gabriel Ruiz (Luke) in Clare Barron's You Got Older, directed by Jonathan Berry, at Steppenwolf Theatre.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Dealing with the death of a loved one is inevitable. It comes with the territory of loving. In Clare Barron's You Got Older, now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, the threat of death and illness — cancer, specifically — is encroaching on its characters, who deal with it the way people often do: dancing precariously between distraction and diversion, and facing the void head-on.

Mae (Caroline Neff) and her life are in disarray. She's smarting from a recent breakup and subsequent job loss, and to add injury to insult, she has a persistent, maddening rash spreading across her back. She retreats to her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest, where her father (Francis Guinan) is beginning treatment for a pernicious and hard-to-identify form of cancer. The timing is perversely convenient — Dad needs somebody to drive him to and from treatment, and Mae needs stability, shelter, and something to care about other than her own feelings.

On top of all of the pressing problems in her life, Mae is preoccupied by an overwhelming sexual appetite that pops up at the least convenient moments. In her dreams, she's visited by Luke (Gabriel Ruiz), a sexy, stoic pastiche of cowboy iconography right out of a romance novel. But even Mae's sexual fantasies keep getting derailed by her self-pity and paranoia, and as Mae grows more sexually frustrated, thoughts of the Cowboy interrupt her waking life.

Onstage for every scene during the two-hour play, Neff shows impressive endurance in her performance. Highlighting Mae's emotional exhaustion and concern for her father, while unafraid to dig into Mae's unflattering self-indulgence, Neff mines humor and pathos from Barron's semiautobiographical script. She shares a dopey kind of chemistry with Glenn Davis, who plays Mac, a neurotic hometown boy with whom Mae shares two memorable evenings.

Emjoy Gavino, David Lind, and Audrey Francis play Mae's siblings. Along with Neff, the four share some of Barron's sharpest and most relatable dialogue, perfectly capturing the tempo and feel of reunited adult siblings. Then, like the star they are all in orbit around, there is Guinan as their father. Known only as Dad, he must balance his own feelings of impending mortality with the urge to put on a brave face for his children. Guinan's performance avoids melodrama entirely. Instead, he gives Dad a delicate, grounded sensibility that feels real and raw.

Meghan Raham's set transitions artfully between scenes. The wood plank fence of Dad's backyard also serves as the wood-paneled walls of a dive bar and the snow-whipped woodland landscape of Mae's fantasies, the latter achieved in collaboration with Rasean Davonte Johnson's very literal projection design and Marcus Doshi's dark and moody lights.

You Got Older sometimes meanders into rough territory, with occasionally unclear staging by director Jonathan Berry, particularly in the transitions between Mae's waking life and her fantasies. Sasha Smith's intimacy choreography is specific and direct, but the moments before and after are murky in a way that doesn't quite seem deliberate. Neff's performance is strong enough to smooth over the bumps in the road, and the effect of the fantasy sequences is overall strong.

You Got Older ends the only way it could — a moment of loss, mourning, and rediscovered vitality. There's no room for ambiguity or delicacy when you're facing the inevitable. But with a strong cast and unflinching dialogue, examining the inexorable march of time can be very enjoyable indeed.