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Welcome to This Is Our Youth

by Aaron Carter

This Is Our Youth lead by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro, is a darkly comic, sympathetic and truthful play that continues Steppenwolf’s history of compassionately exploring characters who are in the throes of difficult personal transformation. This Is Our Youth focuses on three young people on the brink of adulthood. We first meet Dennis, “a dynamic, fanatical and bullying kind of person; amazingly goodnatured and magnetic.” He’s quickly joined by his friend Warren, a “strange barking-dog of a kid with large tracts of thoughtfulness in his personality.” Warren has been kicked out of the house by his violent father, and in retaliation Warren has absconded with $15,000 in cash. As Dennis and Warren try to figure out what to do with their windfall, we see a friendship characterized by a mix of generosity, co-dependency and casual cruelty that is quite common among boys on the verge of adulthood. They are trying on different varieties of manhood: they test each other athletically and physically, they pride themselves on arcane knowledge, they boast of their sexual experience. Dennis and Warren are joined by Jessica, a romantic interest of Warren’s. Jessica is “a fairly cheerful but very nervous girl” who manages that nervousness by cultivating self-assurance through defensiveness. Over the course of one evening and the following morning, a profound shift occurs in their relationships as the last of their youthful naiveté falls away. Left alone at one point, Jessica and Warren debate the nature of identity. Jessica sees individuals as constantly evolving, with little connection to their previous incarnations: What you’re like now has nothing to do with what you’re gonna be like. Like right now you’re all this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be... you’ll definitely be a completely different person. Everything you think will be different and the way you act and all your most passionately held beliefs are all gonna be completely different and it’s really depressing. Warren counters with a more essentialist view, even if his science is a little shaky: I think that you basically get a set of characteristics and then they pretty much just develop in different ways…I think that personality components are like protons and electrons. Like in science: Every molecule is made of the same basic components, like the difference between a hydrogen molecule and a calcium molecule is like one proton or something… So my theory is that people’s personalities are basically constructed the same way. None of them are exactly the same thing, but they’re all made of the same thing As you can read in the interview with Kenneth Lonergan, the characters in This Is Our Youth are trying to figure out who they will become in order to cope with the challenges of independent life as adults. But a deeper question is also active within the play. What This Is Our Youth captures so eloquently is an unsettling paradox. On one hand, circumstances demand that we make choices that appear to have the power to change the course of our lives forever. And yet, we also have a sneaking suspicion that we vastly overestimate the ability to purposefully transform ourselves. Either the fundamental aspects of our identity have already been set—as in Warren’s view. Or—as Jessica suggests—we have no power over what we will change into. The feeling that we must change everything and the simultaneous fear that we are powerless to effect specific change: that is an experience not limited to young people on the brink of adulthood. I think every person facing a potentially transformative event has felt this paralyzing contradiction. Think back to your own milestones: first kiss, first lover, first job, first apartment, first child. Part of what resonates so strongly in This Is Our Youth is that we witness three people emerge changed from a shared experience and as a result realize that we are always in transformation—whether we want to be or not. By the end of This Is Our Youth, Dennis has received news that shakes him to the core. He launches into a riff that captures his sense of the fragility of life and his place in it. But there is also a quieter moment in which Warren sees through Dennis’ bullying bravado. You can practically watch the scales fall from Warren’s eyes. Warren chooses to placate Dennis, but he does so from a place of self-awareness and insight, rather than co-dependent need. It’s a subtle shift—the kind you can miss if you’re not watching carefully. There’s no way to know if Warren is conscious of it, but in that moment he offers a more sophisticated rebuttal to Jessica’s concerns about the future. It is not external circumstances that mark the most significant changes; not the leap from burnout rebel to plastic surgeon. It is a subtle shift of perspective that signals our most profound transformations.

Aaron Carter
Director of New Play Development