Explaining what happens in “Tigers Be Still” is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle. Fueled by Becca A. Lewis’s bravura performance and David J. Miller’s detail-oriented direction, Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production is simply one of the most enchanting theatrical experiences of the season.
Quirky doesn’t begin to describe playwright Kim Rosenstock’s characters. On the surface, 24-year-old Sherry Wickman (Lewis) is just another member of a run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family — father has walked out, mother refuses to leave her room, sister Grace (Kelley Estes) is mourning the end of her engagement with a bottle of Jack Daniels, and Sherry is trying desperately to be successful on her first job as a middle school art teacher.
But Rosenstock, who is a writer for the TV series “New Girl,” has an uncanny ear for the hilariously funny comments and connections these characters try to make in an effort to rise above the pain and sadness that threaten to engulf them. She also delights in incongruous juxtapositions that border on the absurd and yet, anchored by the characters’ needs, seem perfectly natural.
Take for example the fact that Sherry has only landed her job because her mother, a former prom queen, called and asked a favor from her high school boyfriend, the prom king, who happens to be the school principal. Or consider the fact that Sherry’s new boss, Principal Moore (Peter Brown), has asked her to be his 18-year-old son Zach’s (Zach Winston) therapist, since Zach is mourning the recent death of his mother. Before nearly anything has happened, Principal Moore also blithely announces that a tiger has escaped from the zoo and everyone must take precautions.
Tossing a tiger into this domestic stew feels like a deus ex machina event that will save or destroy them all. But how can an escaped tiger possibly compete with the drama going on between and inside each of these characters?
Rosenstock toys with the fourth wall convention, with Sherry addressing the audience directly when it suits her and then shifting back into the crazy world of home and school with nary a backward glance. She also plays with the notion of exposition, having Zach and Sherry pose as the young prom king and queen to explain the relationship between Principal Moore and Sherry’s mom. Miller’s set reinforces the fragility of Sherry’s world with gaps in the house’s walls and then directs his actors to cross right in front of the playing area and pretend to appear at the front door out of nowhere.
Lewis, with her endearingly idiosyncratic portrayal of Sherry, sets the tone – a little too eager, a little too burdened, always trying to be hopeful. But she also gets terrific support from everyone in the cast. Estes, whose obsession with “Top Gun” and nearly all of her ex’s possessions, is both hilarious and heartbreaking; Brown, whose character’s position of authority masks his sense of helplessness and grief; and Winston, whose sullen teen grows into a determined, if still heartbroken young man.
Although “Tigers Be Still” will make you laugh, it will leave you with a tender ache for those moments when we all make decisions to move on, not necessarily to “happily ever after,” but to whatever comes next.Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.