Tigers Be Still
Written by Kim Rosenstock, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller, Costume Design by Fabian Aguilar, Lighting Design by John Delfino, Sound Design by Jon Taie; Production Stage Manager, Margaret Umbsen
CAST (in order of appearance): Becca A. Lewis (Sherry Wickman), Peter Brown (Principal Joseph Moore), Zach Winston (Zach Moore), Kelley Estes (Grace Wickman)
Performances through May 5 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Black Box Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.zeitgeiststage.com
Tigers Be Still is billed as a "comedy about depression," but that depiction is only true in part. Upon first viewing, it is painfully obvious that all four of playwright Kim Rosenstock's quirky characters are suffering, yet their situations provide her plenty of fodder for laughs. However, her incisive writing skill becomes increasingly evident a day or two later when the underlying stories of this quartet seep into your thoughts and make you want to wrap your arms around them. You might say the play sneaks up on you…like a tiger.
Zeitgeist Stage Company Artistic Director David J. Miller was drawn to the play because of Rosenstock's ability to handle the sensitive subject with humor. Inspired by her own personal experience, the playwright, an Amherst College alumna, introduces us to characters who are sympathetic and genuine, who struggle valiantly to pull themselves up out of the black holes they inhabit. For sure, some details of their lives are over the top, but Tigers ventures to entertain as well as tug at the heartstrings.
Sherry Wickman (Becca A. Lewis) is our guide through this charming loony bin where she lives with her housebound mother and older sister. The former refuses to leave her room or have anyone see her (including the audience) because the steroids she takes for an autoimmune disease have resulted in enormous weight gain. In the aftermath of the demise of her engagement, Grace (Kelley Estes) wallows on the couch with an economy-size bottle of Jack Daniels, repeatedly watching the love scene in Top Gun. Compared to them, Sherry is healthy because she is just starting a job as an art therapist and substitute art teacher after a period of debilitating unemployment. Most importantly, she is getting out of the house.
The principal at the middle school who decides to give her a chance is Sherry's mother's high school flame Joseph Moore (Peter Brown). The beleaguered widower is ignoring his own feelings around the loss of his wife to focus on his aimless, brooding 18-year old son Zach (Zach Winston), and has his hands full protecting his students from a tiger that has escaped from a nearby zoo. To address Zach's anger issue, Moore sets him up for art therapy with Sherry, but Zach thinks that he's working with her as an assistant teacher because his father doesn't like him working at CVS during his gap year. Sherry takes on the assignment with gusto, but has to convince Grace to relinquish the couch for their sessions and finds Zach to be less than compliant when she gives him homework assignments.
At the opening of the play and at strategic intervals, Sherry breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience, as if she's addressing a class. This gives her a chance to fill in the back stories that explain some of the behaviors of the other characters and Rosenstock uses the device sparingly. Even during these snippets of narration when she is telling us part of the story, Lewis shows us much more with her facial expressions and body language, radiating emotions and energy that can't be spoken. She is a delight to watch and justifies Miller's instinct to cast her in the role. She captures and conveys Sherry's fragility and insecurity at the outset with a "fake it 'til you make it" approach, and shows her gradually gaining emotional strength as she helps both her sister and Zach triumph over their demons.