Tackling depression, with roars of laughter
Boulevard Theatre, producing a Midwest premiere by Kim Rosenstock, expertly wrangles a comedy about healing from grief and loss.
Crippling anxiety and depression have kept Sherry’s mother in her room for months. Heartbreak and loss have kept her sister Grace on the couch for weeks. And now that she’s made it out of her own bed, Sherry’s got to hold it together long enough to help her new boss’ kid through his own grief therapy. And not get eaten by the tiger roaming around the neighborhood.
This is Tigers Be Still. A comedy.
And a damn good one, which I’m happy to have seen at the Boulevard Theatre Wednesday night. Playwright Kim Rosenstock has supplied director and Boulevard founder Mark Bucher with an artfully crafted play that perfectly captures the contradictions of living depression and loss, and he and his cast in turn have given it a warmth and gravity that keeps you riveted even when you’re wondering where it’ll go next.
Tigers Be Still feels very little like theater. The play’s rapid cross-cuts from scene to scene have a cinematic feel, and characters often break character to speak directly to the audience. It’s not that there’s something inherently untheatrical about the latter – dozens of plays use the device – but Sherry (Shannon Tyburksi) in particular frames these breaks as introductions to stories: the Story of How I Got Out Of Bed; the Story of Our Parents; the Story of Why My Dad Left. It sounds clunky, but feels anything but in the moment.
It helps that Sherry has a good story to tell. Having just graduated from school with a degree in art therapy and no real job, Sherry’s gets a gig as a temporary art teacher thanks to her mother’s long-ago relationship with the school’s principal, Mr. Moore (Jaime Jastrab). The catch is: Sherry also has to make the principal’s son Zack (Josh Wallace) her first client, helping him recover from his mother’s death.
It’s the stuff of melodrama, but Rosenstock writes it with a light, witty tone that is surely not easy to emulate. Tyburski balances right on the line, her existential hysteria tightly restrained behind walls of faked optimism but never invisible. It’s hard enough to hide such anxieties in real life, but letting them creep out just enough so we can see it, on stage – that takes talent.
Josh Wallace has a similar task as Zack. His trauma has trapped him in a perpetual state of aimless, drugstore-shelf-stocking indifference, broken only by violent outbursts. Interestingly, Wallace makes his arrested development feel distinctly different than Sherry’s – it’s a grieving 18-year-old’s arrested development, not a lost 20-something’s – and being able to feel that difference is a credit to them both, and to Bucher’s direction.
More uneven was Brooke Wegner, playing Sherry’s sister Grace. Grace serves as a razor-sharp foil to Sherry; while Sherry’s just barely managed to get out of the house, Grace won’t even get off the couch without prodding, except to steal things from her ex-fiancé’s house in between Top Gun marathons. Wegner absolutely nails the play’s forays into seriousness – there’s one scene in particular, a wordless one midway through, that is absolutely entrancing – but she’s not on the same page with the comedy. They aren’t as much bad as flat, less subtle and more slapstick; it simply doesn’t gibe with the universe Tyburski and Wallace seem to be playing in.
And the tiger? An offstage presence always lurking, a danger turned into a joke to keep the reality at bay. That’s a definition equally applicable to depression, and Bucher and his cast give that affliction the gravity it needs without turning the play into the melodrama its characters believe their lives have become. It’s in rewriting that narrative that they find healing – and it’s in rewriting the usual story that Rosenstock and the Boulevard find success.
The Boulevard Theatre’s production of Tigers Be Still, by Kim Rosenstock, runs through Aug. 18. Shows are at 8 p.m. excepting 2 p.m. Sunday matinees; tickets are $20-$25. For more information or to reserve seats, call (414) 744-5757 or visit the Boulevard’s website.