Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steppenwolf Theatre

This is her youth

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Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson, and Michael Cera in This is Our Youth

On Saturday, my wife and I attended the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. This is a little show with a big pedigree: Lonergan, of course, has gone on to become one of his generation’s leading dramatists, and this production is heading to Broadway later this year with a cast that includes Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. It’s a nifty, shrewdly constructed play, a bittersweet three-hander leavened with just the right amount of slapstick and heart, with fine direction from Anna Shapiro, who between this and August: Osage County is now responsible for two of my favorite memories of the theater. Still, I need to be honest. We and our friends were there to see Tavi Gevinson, the crucial third member of the cast, and looking around the auditorium—which was small enough to practically reach out and touch the actors—I suspected that a lot of other audience members were there to see Tavi as well. And it helps that Jessica, her character, is like a version of Gevinson from an alternate universe, or a dream, which Kant says shows us the person we might have been if we’d had a different upbringing.

If you’re like most people these days, you’re either already fascinated by Tavi or unclear who she is, although I expect the latter will change very quickly. She started out as a preteen fashion blogger in our town of Oak Park, established a massive fanbase before she was in high school, and slowly built herself an empire in all media, including the online magazine Rookie, of which Gevinson is the creator, editor, and sole owner. Gevinson’s ideal audience is and ought to remain smart girls her own age, but among adults, she tends to inspire feelings both paternal and a little awed, as if she were something we’d conjured into existence. (Among other things, she has cited the Log Lady from Twin Peaks as a style icon, wore a replica of Danny’s sweater from The Shining to an appearance on The Colbert Report, and recently appeared in an animated short singing “Heart” by the Pet Shop Boys.) As a recent New York Times profile notes: “Grown-up luminaries have practically lined up to offer the mentorship she has shown little sign of needing.” And between Rookie, This is Our Youth, and performances in the likes of Enough Said and Parenthood, it’s hard to think of another eighteen-year-old whose potential seems more limitless.

Tavi Gevinson

Of course, whenever someone attracts this kind of attention at a young age, there’s always going to be a backlash, and Gevinson has been dealing with skeptics of various stripes since she was thirteen. It’s fair to say that if you’re a creative person of any gender, you tend to regard anyone younger and more successful than you with ambivalence, as you find yourself playing Margo Channing to a newcomer’s Eve Harrington. Even if you’re Emily Gould, say, who was recently the subject of a glowing Times piece on how little attention she wanted, you can’t help but look at Lena Dunham and bite your hand a little: “She turned her life into art…which is something I’m still trying to do. Watching her do it has been excruciating.” And it’s easy to imagine Lena Dunham—who in fact has been an important early player in Gevinson’s career—feeling the same way about Tavi, now that she’s old enough to start competing for the same parts and opportunities. And maybe she’d be right to be wary. You can’t condescend to Gevinson, who has already shown preternatural levels of intelligence and resourcefulness and a tough kernel of ambition, and now she’s ready to conquer the world, or at least New York, in the realization of everything every bright high schooler has ever wanted.

It’s instructive to watch her onstage next to more seasoned pros like Cera and Culkin, who are coming to This is Our Youth with a combined two decades of experience. Cera’s performance is slightly less realized—Culkin seems to have internalized the play down to his bones—but he can still draw on a deep bag of tricks, using his big, lanky body as an instrument for inspired physical comedy. Gevinson is relatively green, which shows, and if she glows in the part, it’s thanks to some combination of natural charisma and the resonance of her story with the role she plays. And all she needs is time to grow, although time can hold surprises of its own. In one of her most memorable lines, she notes how easy it is to feel alienated from yourself at an earlier stage of your life:

It’s like, when you find an old letter you wrote, that you don’t remember writing. And it’s got all these thoughts an opinions in it that you don’t remember having, and it’s written to somebody you don’t even remember having ever written a letter to.

As I watched, I wondered if Gevinson really believes this, or if they’re still only words, as perhaps they should be. When you’re in your teens, you find it unthinkable that you could ever hold a different set of values, and Tavi has received all the encouragement imaginable to remain true to what she cares about now. We’re all about to watch her grow up in public. And if I’m more than a little curious about what happens next, it’s because her story is our story, too.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2014 at 10:04 am

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