Keeping the tigers at bay

Trauma lurks below the surface at Public Theatre
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 30, 2014

theater_tigers_main 

WHAT A ZOO Family dysfunction is humorously
explored in the Public Theatre's rendition of
Tigers Be Still.

Although she’s gotten off the couch, out of depression, and into her first-ever jobs as art teacher and art therapist, Sherry (Anna O’Donoghue) is nevertheless contending with lots of off-kilter dysfunction. Both her mother and her sister Grace (Rebecca Hart) are literally embedded with trauma, her art therapy client proves troublesome, and there’s escaped tiger running around town somewhere. The pain to be confronted is stealthy but fierce for everyone in Kim Rosenstock’s 2010 comedy Tigers Be Still, which runs now at the Public Theatre in Lewiston, under the direction of Christopher Schario.

At the moment, Sherry’s living room is uniquely ill-suited for the home art therapy practice she’s tentatively begun. Her sister Grace, recently cheated on by her fiancé, has camped out on the couch with Jack Daniels and an endless loop of Top Gun, surrounded by bags of possessions purloined from her ex’s apartment. The sisters’ mother, despite living upstairs, is no help with Grace, having refused to see anyone since a medication caused her drastic weight gain. When Sherry needs to meet with her client, 18-year-old serial drugstore employee Zack (Noah Witke) — the son of Joseph (Joseph Tisa), principal of the elementary school where Sherry teaches and a recently widowed old flame of her mom — it’s all Sherry can go to get Grace to clear the living room for an hour.

In the Public Theatre’s production, that fraught living room is plain and roomy, though riddled with shopping bags full of Grace’s domestic thefts, and a strikingly prominent sky upstage shifts beautifully between hues of day and dusk. The spaciousness of the set and lighting detracts somewhat from the sense of claustrophobic isolation and repression these characters; it certainly provides a contrast.

As Rosenstock’s script teeters around serious hurt with seriously quirky humor, the production’s actors, all Equity artists with copious credits outside of Maine, reel capably along its jittery obstacle course of comedy. O’Donoghue’s Sherry wears a taut, insistent smile as she skims nervously around the surface of damage around her; she plays well against Hart’s blunter, looser Grace. They embody the entertainingly comedic caricatures of a sitcom. Meanwhile, in Tisa’s hands, Joseph is sweetly awkward, while Witke’s Zack, his dark hair floppy like a wet dog’s, is the most believably developed character, with his realistic balance of adolescent sarcasm, insecurity, and need for connection.

While the comedy paces the play, it’s the pain beneath it that grounds our stakes in its characters, and that deeper feeling is where Schario’s direction falters. The sit-comical tone never quite breaks open to reveal the full scope of the anguish driving everyone; the show remains skillfully funny, but never ultimately becomes as emotionally affecting as it could. Witke’s Zack comes close, in the sudden candor of his own confession, as does Tisa’s Joseph, when he cannot bring himself to tell a telemarketer why his wife’s yoga-magazine subscription has been canceled. But overall, and particularly in Sherry’s key moments toward catharsis, I hungered for more glints of the raw animal agony being kept at bay.

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