Tigers, both real and metaphorical, are looming in Kim Rosenstock’s off-Broadway hit. Sherry, a fresh out of college art therapist, is trying to make a go of it in the only job she could find, at a middle school. But, her first patient is the principal’s 18-year-old son and it proves more than difficult to conduct therapy in a living room occupied by her drunk sister, mourning a recent breakup. Not to mention, their mother somewhere upstairs, an ever-present, but never appearing former beauty queen who has gained weight and is unwilling to be seen by even her daughters.
TheatreSquared stays ahead of the curve, I think, in picking up a play no other stages have seen outside of New York. Kim Rosenstock, currently a writer for Fox’s New Girl, is a rising playwright, and “Tigers Be Still,” a marker of the high-quality work T2 seeks to bring to our community. The piece made it onto Charles Isherwood’s Top 10 List of 2010 plays for the New York Times, noting Rosenstock as the emerging playwright to look out for. When I saw the show Friday night, Ms. Rosenstock was in the audience and even took a bow alongside the cast for the performance’s standing ovation.
It wasn’t undeserved. “Tigers Be Still,” a slightly dark, subtle comedy, offers an impressive cast. Lauren Blumenfeld’s Sherry continually addresses the audience with sweeping statements like this one, which opens the show: “This is the story of how I stopped being a total disaster.” The fact that you are laughing at the disaster as it unfolds is only part of the play’s charm. The rest depends on how relatable the characters become. Zach, the principal’s son played by Sundown Town alum, Quinn Gasaway, is only beginning to break the surface of a dark night of the soul, brought on by a terrible accident his father, Joseph, cannot even bring himself to discuss. Wrought by director Portia Krieger with a realism that aches, that tension is never more present than in the scene where Joseph, portrayed effortlessly by Richard Holden, attempts to cancel his dead wife’s subscription to a yoga magazine. The look shared by father and son just as the lights dim produced audible gasps from the audience.
But that same subtlety of script, how each of these characters has fallen prey to their emotions, their own disasters, can make some scenes a little flat (riding one too many jokes about rock bottom), and occasionally makes of them mere caricatures, particularly Sherry’s sister, the scorned fiancée. Amelia McClain, who plays the role quite well, has some of the funniest lines, perhaps, but her character becomes the literally veiled foil for her sister, only with extensive stage time. I could have done without her character’s recurring returns to her Top Gun obsession, even though the pay off on that joke was decent by the end.
Endearing scenes of believable originality do shine through, though. My favorite between Sherry and Zach was in a shoe closet (forgive the teaser). Even the gag of an actual escaped tiger ends up feeling real, meaning something. The plea of the title becomes a sort of undercurrent mantra by the end. These characters must each find a way out of their respective jungles.
What makes a show tight, something an audience can really sink into, are the details. Mark Erbaugh’s set design was impressively fitting and flexible. The majority of the scenes take place in Sherry’s living room (complete with staircase leading nowhere but to the never-descending mother), but it easily transforms, thanks to lighting designer, David Stoughton, into a principle’s office, a kitchen, an auditorium, even the local pond. The overall construction of this show, from direction to sound design, was professionally precise. Something I always admire.
The language and content do not make the show particularly kid-friendly, but mature folk who have appreciated T2’s previous quieter offerings will find “Tigers Be Still” a treat. The play runs through March 4. Tickets can be purchased at waltonartscenter.org or through the Walton Arts Center box office at 479- 443–5600.