Support Group for Men, a new play by sometimes Chicagoan Ellen Fairey having its world premiere at the Goodman, is one distinctly of its place (an apartment in Lake View) and time (the second half of 2017). And though Fairey first workshopped the show in 2016, during the Goodman's festival for new plays, it couldn't be more at home than at the height of the #MeToo movement.
The gist: In a living room on the border of Wrigleyville and Boystown, Brian, Roger, Del, and Kevin hold a weekly support group. There, they dish on topics ranging from gender identity to being the oldest employee at an Apple Store, all while passing around a makeshift talking stick (in this case a gaudily decorated baseball bat). The result is a roomful of men—and in turn, an audience—forced to listen compassionately to one another's woes.
Ahead of the show's remaining run through July 29, Fairey, who splits her time between LA, New York, and Chicago and has written for Showtime's Nurse Jackie and Masters of Sex, dishes on the play.
Support Group for Men explores what it means to be a man in today's America. As a woman, what sparked your interest in men’s lived experiences from an outsider's persepctive?
The stuff that the guys are struggling with and talking about—or not talking about—all feel really universal to me. There are issues of aging and invisibility, and just confusion about the rapidly changing world.
How did you come up with the title? Had you heard of any real-life support groups for men?
I moved to Los Angeles and connected with some other writers. One of them was a playwright in his forties, and he brought up something about his men's support group. It was a lot of rules and ritual, and they had Native American names and a talking stick and it was in some guy’s apartment. That was the kernel for starting the play. It felt like a setting that would be funny, but one that could also be moving, and inspiring, and clumsy, and ridiculous.
Thematically, it seems important that the play takes place in the Midwest—the characters are such everyman types. Do you feel Chicago lent a particular personality to the play?
I do think there's a groundedness to Chicago that helps the play. These guys are talkative; they're not reserved people. There is this everydayness associated with Chicago that felt right for the setting.
It’s easy to vilify men right now, but your play didn't do that. Why create a show about men's efforts to evolve and adapt socially?
I don't feel like demonizing a gender is going to help anything at all. It's just going to keep us stuck. It doesn't mean that we should ignore the crimes and all the shit that people have been putting up with for years. It doesn't mean we should ignore it or not talk about it, but the flat-out demonization of a gender is really boring to me.
A romantic relationship develops at the end of the play, and serves as a sign of growth for one character. What role do women have in supporting men as partners and friends?
Even in the beginning, they're talking about the Women’s March. It's like, everything is changing, and it’s going to be really disorienting, so hold on. There is this presence of the feminine that creeps into the play and fully comes in at the end, and it felt like it rounded out the play. Even with the Led Zeppelin music cues near the end, the sound designer Richard Woodbury mixed in a female voice, so it's kind of like an encroaching of the feminine. It's seeping into the men's world, literally—and hopefully figuratively too.
Support Group for Men runs through July 29 at the Goodman Theatre. Tickets.