Theater Wit chases depression into sharp bite of comedy with Rosenstock’s ‘Tigers Be Still’
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Kim Rosenstock’s bittersweet comedy “Tigers Be Still” is a gentle, optimistic play about depression. Substitute “demons” for “tigers” and you have the gist of it.
Not that there isn’t a tiger. One has escaped from the zoo in the play’s contemporary small-town locale. And early in the proceedings, the high school principal gets on the PA system to warn students to be wary. Heeding his own counsel, Joseph (Guy Massey) keeps a rifle at his desk. But the vagrant tiger is not Joseph’s main concern at the moment.
That would be his son Zack (Matt Farabee), a student at the school who has slumped into depression since the recent death of his mother in an automobile accident. Joseph is trying his best to soldier on without his wife, and be both father and mother to his son, but Zack has pretty much stopped communicating. So Joseph has hired the school’s new art therapist Sherry (Mary Winn Heider) to take Zack under her care and see if she can bring him out of his shell.
Here it should be noted that Zack is Sherry’s very first patient. She’s the proud new holder of a master’s degree in art therapy, an achievement that to date has done her no good whatsoever – at least not until, after many rejections, she got this job just by walking into Joseph’s office and asking. Sherry was urged in that direction by her unseen mom, with whom Sherry lives – together with her sister Grace (Kasey Foster).
It turns out their shared abode is a mausoleum for the morose: Mom’s never seen because she’s on medication that has caused her to gain a good deal of weight and consequently she has cloistered herself; Grace is perpetually sprawled on the living room sofa clutching a bottle of booze and reviling the boyfriend who has split, and Sherry the therapist – well, it seems Sherry is newly risen from the spiritually comatose thanks to the high school job.
“Tigers Be Still” tends toward the one-liners of sitcom, though it does so with a consistently sharp edge, largely in the voice of Heider’s kindly, deferential Sherry. She is ever anxious to please and terribly concerned that her first – and very difficult – patient will be her last. While Heider’s sweet Sherry is not without appeal, her real role is that of narrator: She fixes our attention on Zack, in whom playwright Rosenstock has created a character of complexity, wry wit and substance. (On the other hand, the stock figure of plotzed Grace and the functional Joseph effectively join dear old Mom among the dramatically invisible.)
Matt Farabee’s Zack is a sullen misfit that you find yourself loving and rooting for. Farabee shows Zack to be a sensitive plant and measures his return to life in grudging increments. The smartest writing in the play points up the help that Sherry is providing Zack as their relationship evolves into mutual trust – help that neither therapist nor patient quite understands. It isn’t building objects out of Popsicle sticks that’s stirring Zack back to the living. His recovery is not a leap but a credible and touching migration, and his final facing down of his personal burden is shaped and delivered with poetic grace.
If only the play ended there. But that would leave untidy bits lying about the stage. Playwright Rosenstock hastens to the finish, tying off two secondary strands into one implausible knot. Not even director Jeremy Wechsler’s adroit stitchery can make this last patchwork look like whole cloth.
Set designer Andrei Onegin gets points for a shoe closet of department store breadth and completeness. It’s a perfect spot for a boy-girl interlude. And there’s even a pair of ruby slippers.
- Kim Rosenstock talks about “Tigers Be Still” and her other plays: Read the interview
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Zack (Matt Farabee) and Sherry (Mary Winn Heider) have a moment in the shoe closet. Descending: Depression engulfs Zack (Matt Farabee). Grace (left, Kasey Foster) finds comfort in sofa and bottle, but Sherry (Mary Winn Heider) tries to bring her out of it. Below: Zack’s mother’s grand shoe closet Matt Farabee with Mary Winn Heider as Sherry. (Photos by Liz Lauren)