- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack
- From left: Francesca Blanchard, Katherine Reid and Anthony DePalma
A comedy should leave the audience floating on air. Playwright Kim Rosenstock does just that with Tigers Be Still, chiefly by sticking her emotionally realistic characters in oddly unrealistic circumstances. And she does it while putting them up against serious depression. In Vermont Stage's production, a cast of four works as a tight ensemble to uncover laughs where they're least expected and most welcome.
Rosenstock's comedy centers on people reconciling themselves to crushing losses. Swinging her arms with goofball hope, 24-year-old Sherry opens the show in direct address to the audience. Her nervous laughter is endearing as she tells us she's only recently surfaced from a long period of depression. For different reasons, her mother and sister are struggling with depression, too. Sherry's obstacles are just big enough to make her tinny optimism sound more like brilliant magical thinking than pathetic confidence boosting.
She's about to start her first job, as a middle school art teacher. Joseph, the principal who hires her, hands out butterscotch candies to make up for his limited emotional bandwidth. He foists his 18-year-old son, Zack, on Sherry as a teaching assistant. For good measure, he'd like Sherry to use her art therapy training to help Zack. Joseph wears a cheerful necktie at school, but his wife — Zack's mother — has just died in a car accident.
Nothing like starting with the easy stuff. Sherry is eager to see her first therapy client, but the home office she hopes to use is currently overrun. Her sister, Grace, spends the day sprawled on the couch in a stupor fueled by Jack Daniels and anguish over breaking up with her fiancé. Grace has filled the living room with his possessions, repeatedly raiding his condo to steal everything from his pillow to his spice rack to his two Chihuahuas.
Predictably, art therapy with a sullen teen does not go well. Zack is not just uncommunicative; he's walking stone-faced through a Sahara-size emotional desert. His job as a drugstore clerk suits him, but even there his distress may emerge, usually as an angry outburst.
In Rosenstock's script, the quirks keep coming: Every problem has a flourish that pushes it a little past plausibility. But the hyperbolic circumstances make the characters, by contrast, appear surprisingly realistic as they draw on emotional intelligence summoned in the midst of chaos.
Director Cristina Alicea keeps the action buoyant through 23 brisk scenes. It's an actor's play, and Alicea does the important job of melding them into an ensemble. Then she lets the script's humor bloom through little pauses that pitch each joke a little higher and stitch each relationship a little tighter.
The four actors consistently land zingers designed to cheer, not destroy, and never let the story descend to mawkishness. Grace and Sherry demonstrate the sisterly warmth that permits weapons-grade teasing. Zack and his father are years away from revealing anything to each other, but even a meal eaten in near silence proves how mere attention to another is a kind of tenderness.
As Sherry, Katherine Reid treats her character's hard-won optimism like a precious gift she's still afraid of losing. She gives Sherry born-again moments when she radiates hope for everyone, but fundamentally she is a portrait of someone still struggling, taking no joy for granted. Reid's subtlest work shows Sherry only pretending she's gathered the self-esteem she needs. That tank is still close to empty, but Reid conveys her dogged hope to fill it.
As Zack, Anthony DePalma has the tough task of creating his character with moody silence more than dialogue. DePalma gives him a restless energy; Zack may not be processing his grief yet, but he doesn't just stand still and brood. And his deadpan gazes speak volumes. By the end, DePalma has dragged Zack through enough misery that the character finally begins to understand his sorrow.
John Nagle, as Joseph, sometimes makes shopworn comic moves, such as hurting his hand whenever he makes an emphatic gesture around a solid object. But Nagle also goes deeper, such as in a funny, bittersweet telephone monologue in which he tries to cancel his wife's magazine subscription but is unable to say the reason out loud.
Francesca Blanchard is fully committed to Grace's hopeless methods for managing heartbreak. Wadding herself up on the couch, Blanchard portrays a character who has lost all self-respect by performing as if no one's watching. She drools a bit on the sofa arm in her drunken daze and enters the embarrassing phone message hall of fame by singing a ghastly rendition of "The Rose." (Hilariously, she is using her real-life skill as an accomplished singer to pull it off.) Blanchard's sharp comic timing and physical freedom are wonderful to watch.
Costume designer Cora Fauser highlights the characters' strengths and weaknesses — and sometimes both. Grace's I've-given-up track suit is just right for lethargy, while Zack's all-black palette is a perfect counterweight to his father's bright yellow, friendly school principal shirt.
Many of the swift vignettes are sketched without scenery, but set designer Blair Mielnik fills one end of the skinny stage with a nicely realized living room for Sherry and Grace, and the other with a cleverly adaptable office and home for Joseph and Zack. Martha Goode's sound design makes the scene transitions lively.
Rosenstock keeps the audience a little off-balance, and even throws in the unnecessary twist that a tiger has escaped from the local zoo. Her blend of naturalistic, witty dialogue and mildly surreal circumstances creates a perfect backdrop for engaging characters.
Depression is played for laughs in Tigers Be Still, but it isn't trivialized. The losses remain real aches, and the story ultimately turns on what each character can do for another. Troubled as they are, all of them see others more clearly than they can perceive themselves. When Sherry succeeds in bringing everyone hope, including herself, the audience can take some home, too.