CHARLESTOWN — With “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” playwright Lauren Gunderson employs humorous theatrical devices to tackle the serious subject of domestic abuse. In Theatre on Fire’s slightly frantic production, now at the Charlestown Working Theater, director Darren Evans places the emphasis on the funny rather than the frightening aspects of the story, with mixed results.
The action takes place in the living room of a home dominated by mounted animal heads on one wall and a display of weapons on the other. At center stage is the homeowner, Kyle (Tim Hoover), who sits duct-taped to a chair, including a piece covering his mouth. The play opens with Kyle waking up and realizing his predicament and doing a hilarious dance with the chair exhorting the audience, through his gag, to help him out. When his wife, Nan (Mary-Liz Murray), enters, she explains that after years of abuse, she’s decided to have her revenge, but has planned a slow and theatrical end for him.
With the help of her new friend Sweetheart (Samantha Evans) and her best friend, Simon (Cameron Beaty Gosselin), Nan reenacts scenes from their marriage so that Kyle, her captive audience, can see how horrible he’s been to her. Sweetheart, an aspiring actress and sometime stripper, has helped Nan concoct this performance, complete with stage directions (which occasionally appear on screens above the audience), flashbacks, dream sequences, and soliloquies. Sweetheart is also a great fan of Shakespeare, hence the use of the bard’s famous stage direction (in “The Winter’s Tale”) “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” as the demise they’ve planned for Kyle.
Gunderson’s dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny, particularly around Nan’s sidekicks. Sweetheart does elaborately goofy warm-up exercises to get into character before pretending to be Kyle in several scenes that reveal Kyle’s brutality. Simon, who arrives in a cheerleader uniform to encourage Nan’s decision to leave Kyle, is a ridiculous cliché of a supportive gay friend, and has some of the play’s funniest lines. But underneath the humor, Nan does talk about Kyle’s shocking physical abuse, and Gunderson slips in lines that reveal Nan’s heartbreak, disappointment, and the courage it takes to leave.
At the same time, Gunderson doesn’t draw Nan with enough detail to make us understand why she has stood by her man for so long. She seems more beaten down than bent on revenge. When Kyle demands to be part of the reenactment of their first few dates, his attempts at seduction elicit cringes from Nan, and little of the charm or vulnerability he might have exhibited come through.
Luke J. Sutherland’s set design of imposing walls creates a sense of a confined space Nan is eager to escape, but the play’s meta-theatrical gimmicks short-circuit that claustrophobic feel. As funny as the sidekicks are, they never feel like real people, honestly trying to help a friend.
Director Darren Evans, usually so good with intimate character dramas, struggles here to create a consistent pace for the actors. The ensemble races through the dialogue, running right over some of Gunderson’s tender moments. Ultimately though, Gunderson’s reliance on humor reveals her wariness about approaching the topic of domestic abuse. Her unwillingness to anchor her characters in honest emotions detracts from what could have been a darkly funny revenge drama.