Theater Wit closes its 2012 season with a comedy. About crippling depression that nearly destroys two separate families. Oh and a tiger is on the loose. Seriously. It is a comedy after all.
Tigers Be Still, a play by Kim Rosenstock and directed by Jeremy Wechsler, follows the life of twenty four year old Sherry (Mary Winn Heider), a freshly minted art therapist who is trying to pull her life together after months of unemployment and feelings of depression and hopelessness. The play begins as she embarks on her first day at her new job as an art teacher at the local school. The same day Sherry starts her new job, the school principal Joseph (Guy Massey) announces that a tiger has escaped from the zoo and is roaming free in the town (this news will explain why we later see him carrying a rifle around school). Meanwhile Sherry must deal with her mother who has not left her room in over a year and her sister Grace (Kasey Foster) who rarely leaves the living room couch after a bad breakup. In addition to the job, Sherry gains her first art therapy patient, the unwitting principal’s son Zack (Matt Farabee) who suffers from fits of rage after being involved in his mothers death. Really… funny.
Tigers Be Still is an exceptionally challenging play. Billed as a comedy, Rosenstock skirts an incredibly fine line by attempting to find humor in a topic which frankly has absolutely no comedic value. The comedy seems built on the absurdity of the level the characters have fallen, and most of the play I just felt, well, bad for them. The few funny moments in the play arise from well written zingers inserted into scenes that are unambiguously serious, a break in tension which at best makes the scene awkward and at worst belittles the gravity of the moment. I haven’t walked away from a comedy this depressed since the last Robin Williams movie I saw.
The cast in Tigers Be Still is delightful and energetic for a group of people whose characters are struggling with depression. Heider is wonderfully expressive and skillfully navigates the complex mine field of maintaining an ebullient veneer beneath crippling self-doubt. Foster is a lovable drunk delivering a few admittedly hilarious scenes in the play, particularly her heartfelt karaoke rendition of Bette Midler’s The Rose. Farabee does his best deadpan Napoleon Dynamite impression, but still manages to inject warmth and humor into some of the more serious scenes. Massey plays the typical bumbling principal archetype, but shows depth in the pensive relationship with his son and the touching boyishness of reigniting a relationship with a long-lost love.
Praises also go to the scene design. An immersive experience, the audience sits on each sideline of a tennis match style of scene changes. The far wall to center theater hosted Sherri's living room where a substantial amount of the action occurs, and the near wall hosted a slew of different scenes ranging from Joseph and Zack's kitchen, Joseph's school office, shoe closets, and municipal ponds to name a few. As the scenes ended actors hopped to and fro, and must have been exhausted at the end, but it made the play feel more streamlined and kept the narrative moving forward seamlessly.
While certainly resting well in the darkest depths of comedy, Tigers Be Still is nonetheless a poignant look at the different ways people and families are affected by depression. It additionally includes a fairly accurate representation of art therapy, an oft misunderstood field. The depth of characters makes me excited to see future showings by Rosenstock, and I will definitely be on the lookout for the outstanding cast, but for laughs I think I will stick with reruns of Chappelle’s Show.
Tigers Be Still runs at Theater Wit through June 5. For tickets and showtimes, contact www.theaterwit.org or call 773-975-8150. All photos by Liz Lauren