I first encountered Ellen Fairey’s play Support Group for Men several years ago, when Ellen and her director, Kimberly Senior, submitted it for consideration for our annual New Stages Festival. At that time, I found it to be a drolly funny, trenchant study of a group of average Wrigleyville men confronting the sometimes dizzying evolution of the new realities of gender in our society—and how that evolution affected their own views of masculinity (and femininity) in a changing world.
We immediately scheduled a workshop presentation of the play in the 2016 festival, where it was an undisputed hit. Audiences were captivated by the play’s humor and honesty, and intrigued by the central characters’ struggles to come to terms with new insights, definitions and understandings of what it means to be a man, especially in a time when men’s longstanding roles in society are no longer rock solid.
Ellen’s inspiration for this play came not only from a specific story of a male friend and his support group, but also by a general sense that many of her male peers (most in their late 40s and early 50s) were struggling with feelings of loneliness, disconnection and uncertainty related to their own identities amid society’s new view of them. As noted author and theologian Wonhee Anne Joh writes, “At the heart of sexism is the construction of gender polarization, in which femininity and masculinity are assumed to be clearly delineated, and any transgression of this pattern warrants punitive measures.” The effort to move beyond the obvious ill effects of this rigid polarization is undoubtedly long overdue. It also requires a new way of thinking about ourselves and our own (perhaps outmoded) understandings of gender roles, as Fairey’s well-meaning band of brothers finds—an acknowledgment of the spaces that exist in between those traditional poles of gender identification, both outside and within ourselves, and the freedom that comes from that understanding.
In the two years since that workshop production, Ellen has continued to hone her play to reflect rapid societal changes; references include the new activism evidenced by the post-inauguration Women’s March and the birth of the #MeToo movement. But Ellen’s obvious empathy and affection for her characters—their Chicago roots and traditions and their earnest but sometimes painful journey to enlightenment— is still laugh out-loud funny and bracingly perceptive. Under the skilled direction of Kimberly Senior, Support Group for Men is the perfect summertime entertainment for our times, a warm-hearted, witty and timely exploration of who we are, who we thought we were, and who we can become.