Love. Loss. Pain. Doubt. Guilt. Fear. These are all themes we've seen time and time again in living room dramas for the past 100 years. While Hyde Park Theatre's current offering, Tigers Be Still, features all of those themes and motifs, it uses them to create an intriguing dramatic comedy. The piece certainly strikes a balance between touching, poignant moments and gut-busting guffaws.
Tigers Be Still, written by twenty-something Kim Rosenstock, is an episodic play about four people all grappling, often unsuccessfully, with their doubts and fears in life, all as news surfaces that a tiger has escaped from the nearby zoo. At the core of the play is Sherri (Molly Karrasch), a perky, formerly depressed art therapist who tries to help her recently jilted sister, Grace (Kelsey Kling), her boss, Joseph (Jay Michael Fraley), and her boss's teenage son, Zack (Jon Cook) conquer their demons.
Without question, the four person cast is the highlight of Tigers Be Still. Here are four performers at the top of their game. While other actors would have made these dysfunctional characters cartoony, in the hands of these performers, the characters are real, accessible, and fully-formed.
As Sherri, the art therapist who admits she was recently so depressed she could not even get out of bed, Molly Karrasch has the demanding job of being peppy and quirky but with the subtle twist of being a woman who knows that the bits of hard-earned happiness she has could evaporate at any moment. She seems desperate to cling to that, and as the play goes on it seems as if her perkiness is the façade of someone trying to fake it till they make it. Her choices make Sherri an interesting heroine you want to root for, though other actresses would have turned the character into an annoying Kelly Rippa-esque caricature.
Jay Michael Fraley gives a nuanced performance as widower/school Principal/concerned father, Joseph. In Fraley's hands, the grieving father character, whose plight is arguably the most depressing of the bunch, is sad and moving but never sappy. He finds some great comic moments in his character's actions and words which lets his moments of sadness resonate further. His ecstatic joy over doing something as simple as threading a needle plays to hilarious effect; his disappointment when he drops the needle and has to begin again is a fitting metaphor for a man who's holding things together by a thread.
As Zack, Jon Cook has the difficult task of showing us something that we've seen before-an angsty, guilt-ridden teen with anger management problems-and has to make it seem fresh and new. He succeeds by playing with his characters moments of smart-ass wit, soul baring secrets, and in one of the best scenes in the play, his awkward attempt to woo his therapist. Like Ms. Karrasch, Mr. Cook is able to remove his character from the land of cliché.
But the most entertaining performance of the evening comes from Kelsey Kling as the boozing, Top Gun obsessed kleptomaniac Grace. Once again, we've seen jilted women who are barely holding on to sanity before, but none are as funny and as moving as this. Ms. Kling stays barely on this side of over-the-top, but her risky efforts certainly pay off. Her two phone calls to her former fiancée are two of the best moments of the night. Every moment that she has on stage is a delight.
Yet despite the fantastic work of the actors involved, Tigers Be Still doesn't entirely succeed, mostly due to the material itself. Playwright Kim Rosenstock falls victim to one of the largest problems posed by episodic plays. When there's no plot and what you're presenting is a character study, after 5-10 minutes the audience may feel they know the characters well. Unless new information is presented to give the audience another glimpse into what makes the characters tick, there's nothing to really hold their interest. While Ms. Rosenstock does give us a few added glimpses (the revelation of what's causing Zach's guilt and grief and the moment where Sherri tries to explain why her father left are prime examples), there just aren't enough. At times, the play feels like a series of small scenes and vignettes that serve no purpose.
Despite its flaws, Tigers Be Still is a thoroughly enjoyable, but not quite life-changing, portrait of fear and grief in America, armed by a talented troupe of actors who nearly rescue the material from itself. While it's doubtful to go down in your memory as your favorite play of all time, Tigers Be Still is worth a trip to Hyde Park Theatre.