Tigers Be Still (Review)

Kim Rosenstock's dysfunctional characters make for an entertaining slice of modern life

I read Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still before I saw the production currently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. I have to confess that I found it amusing but not hilarious, perhaps even a tad predictable in the vein of contemporary plays about semi-dorky people contending with the vicissitudes of daily life and perhaps struggling to get their acts together. We just saw something like that at the Playhouse with its recent production of Theresa Rebeck’s Dead Accounts and last season at Ensemble Theatre offered Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days. Shows like these use comedy to make semi-profound points about who we are and where we are headed, but like a lot of television fare, they evaporate rather quickly.

That’s more or less what I expected of Tigers Be Still. I didn’t anticipate that with solid direction by Rob Ruggiero and spot-on casting, Rosenstock’s script — which is being produced at several regional theaters this season — manages to be charming, funny, optimistic and perhaps even heart-warming. I was surprised and impressed that a story about four characters (well, maybe five or six) each afflicted by forms and stages of depression could have such an outcome.

The central character, Sherry (Lindsey Kyler), age 24, recently landed a job as an art therapist at a middle school. Her recent master’s degree wasn’t getting her anywhere until her mom reached out to an old boyfriend, now a school principal. Rosenstock’s script has Sherry steadily and anxiously addressing the audience directly about the developments and circumstances of her life. She tells us she’s been immobilized and doesn’t have much confidence that she’s on the mend. But she’s taking steps.

Sherry is surrounded by people with dysfunction more profound than hers. The impending marriage of her older sister has crashed and burned; Grace (Joanne Tucker) now leads a semi-comatose existence curled up under an afghan on the couch, watching and re-watching Top Gun and cozying up with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Their mother has withdrawn to her upstairs bedroom, embarrassed by a significant weight gain and unwilling to be seen even by her daughters — let alone the audience: She phones them to talk.

Joseph Moore (Darrin Baker) is the awkward, starchy principal who was Sherry’s mom’s prom date years earlier — we’re reminded by tunes from the ’70s assembled by sound designer Joseph Olivieri — who has an ulterior motive for hiring Sherry. His slacker son Zack (Eric Nelsen), age 19, has been having outbursts of anger since his mother’s death. Joseph thinks Sherry might help Zack, not realizing his own issues.

That accounts for five depressed characters trying to cope (including the unseen mother). There’s one more: A tiger on the loose from the local zoo that has the local citizenry — or at least the junior-high principal and his rifle — on 24-hour alert. But the tiger (another invisible character who shapes the action) is the embodiment of everyone’s angst, in need of being stilled. When we finally learn about his actual appearance in Zack’s amusing story of their encounter, he’s not in the best of moods either. But he’s really more disgusted than predatory.

Humor is the byword throughout Tigers Be Still, which runs for about 100 minutes without intermission: It’s broken up by pop culture references in terms of movies (especially Top Gun), TV shows (one scene is set to Family Ties) and music (e.g., “Lean on Me,” Bette Midler’s “The Rose” and the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which conjures a particularly momentous event in the brief relationship between Joseph and the girls’ mother — cleverly re-enacted by Nelsen and Kyler playing their parents).

Despite the laughs, there are touching moments between the sisters and between father and son, and we see dark threats hovering around corners for each of them. The pattern of large tropical leaves on the floor — the set (designed by Michael Schweikardt), while basically the women’s home, also serves as classroom, several drugstores where Zack works, the principal’s office, a closet full of shoes and so on — reminds us all the characters live in a jungle. The story resolves in some simplistic but acceptable ways that make you glad you took the time to watch Sherry’s story of “how I stopped being a total disaster and got my life on track and did NOT let overwhelming feelings of anxiousness and loneliness and uselessness just like totally eat my brain.” It’s a collection of wholly contemporary characters and events that makes for an entertaining slice of modern life.

TIGERS BE STILL, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse, continues through April 15. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.

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