Hug it out! Three friends – Andrea Snow as Sweetheart (left), Reggie D. White as Simon (center) and Erin Gilley as Nan – rejoice in their revenge drama as their victim, Patrick Jones as Kyle (the one duct-taped to a chair) begins to reconsider his violent behavior in Lauren Gunderson’s spiky comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a Crowded Fire Theater Company production at the Boxcar Theater. Below: Gilley and Jones work through some thorny issues. Photos by Dave Nowakowski
Falling in love with a playwright whose work you’re experiencing for the first time feels like Christmas morning at age 6 – giddy excitement, new toys, wonder and sugar high all wrapped up in a nice holiday package. That’s what it felt like the other night at the Boxcar Playhouse watching Crowded Fire Theater Company’s production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, a Georgia native who now lives and works in San Francisco.
Taking her cue from the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene iii), Gunderson returns to the hills of Northern Georgia for a crispy revenge drama served up with salty laughs and the kind of clever attention to detail that signals the arrival of a writer to whom you should pay attention. When writers say they’re going to tackle a serious subject from a comic angle, they’re really just marketing a heavy drama that maybe has a laugh or two but really it just makes you want to kill yourself.
Gunderson really does just that. Her play is brave in that it takes domestic abuse head on but in a completely unconventional way with huge laughs that in no way undermine the drama. If there’s ever been a play about a husband beating his wife that’s this much fun, I certainly don’t know it. Maybe some will feel there’s absolutely nothing to laugh at where this subject is concerned, but Gunderson’s world is so theatrical, so smart and so emotionally true there’s absolutely no reason to take offense. On the contrary – she’s a champion of female empowerment and refuses to demonize just for the sake of creating a bad guy.
It’s not hard to miss the bad guy. That would be Kyle (Patrick Jones), the redneck dude duct-taped to his recliner. Seems Kyle has not been a dream to live with these last six years of wedded non-bliss with wife Nan (Erin Gilley). He hunts illegally, while his animal-loving wife works at a veterinary clinic. He gets drunk and hits her. She’s bright and would seem to know that she doesn’t have to stay with him. But from her perspective, she has no hope, no choice, no life beyond the small house in the woods she shares with Kyle. She’s scared.
But then she meets, by chance, a woman named Sweetheart (Andrea Snow), and over a Subway sandwich and discussion of Shakespeare, they bond. Sweetheart is a stripper/aspiring actress, and she’s good for Nan. Bolstered by Sweetheart on one side and Simon (Reggie D. White), her BFF since middle school, on the other, she finds the courage to take action. She hatches a plan to make Kyle see the error of his ways, and to do this, she creates a show of sorts. She and Sweetheart and Simon will reenact key scenes from Nan and Kyle’s marriage, a sort of play within the play for a very captive audience – theater with an “re” as one of the characters puts it. “Use the power of the fourth wall to expose himself to himself,” Sweetheart explains before adding later, “Let’s get classical!”
The play will end with Kyle surrounded by lots of raw meat, an open door, lots of bottles of honey and an open invitation to every bear in the woods to come on in and have a feast. The plan, in a nutshell, is “let nature in and get the hell out” or even more simply, “man hatin’ and bear baitin’.”
At only 75 minutes, the play flies by but never feels slight. Director Desdemona Chiang finds exactly the right tone to bring out the sympathy and sass in Nan’s story. The meta-theatrical jokes, the breaking of the fourth wall, the use of video slides (designed by Wesley Cabral) all contribute to the fun, but the performances really do the trick when it comes to mining the story for its emotional truth. Every actor in that rustic cabin (wonderful set design by Emily Greene really makes you feel like you’re in a Georgia home) is fantastic and just keeps getting more and more interesting as the play continues. They find ways to make their characters endearing without being cloying and manage to bring out the smartness and sincerity in Gunderson’s writing.
Gunderson is so deft she can even make something cliché – like Fourth of July fireworks to symbolize Nan’s independence – seem smart and funny. She even rescues a song from the slag heap of ’80s pop and makes you hear it with fresh ears.
I can see why three theaters – Crowded Fire, along with Synchronicity Theater in Atlanta and ArtsWest in Seattle – tripped over themselves to make this Bear growl this year. They formed an alliance to give the play a rolling world premiere, which is to say three separate productions in succession. The play is, in a way, post-ironic. Its meta-theatrical self-awareness makes it hip and of the moment, but all that leads to a powerfully authentic and emotional place.
I can’t wait to see what Gunderson brings to Bay Area stages next.
I interviewed Exit, Pursued by a Bear playwright Lauren Gunderson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear continues through Sept. 7 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.