“I’d rather have a bear in my lap than a pregnant liberal!” snaps Kyle (Duke Anderson) to his wife Nan (Taylor Staniforth) after she’s duct-taped him to the ratty old recliner in their rural Georgia home. His words sound like the punchline to an unnecessarily complicated joke, and in a way they are.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s revenge opus Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which is receiving a lively and charming North Texas premiere courtesy of Circle Theatre, is an 85-minute situation comedy pumped up with Shakespearean allusions and multimedia flourishes. Last Saturday night’s performance was tight and exuberant, an anarchic mix of high- and lowbrow elements that both celebrated and satirized the pop culture ethos of personal empowerment championed by daytime talk shows. When addressing the play’s deadly serious subject of domestic abuse, director Krista Scott nudges her actors to go for farcical gestures over painful details. The choice is not misguided –– it’s clearly what Gunderson was after –– but it does aggravate the central problem of the script: characters that are about as compelling as the blue-collar Heartlanders you see on Maury squabbling over paternity test results.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear wears its artistic ambitions earnestly if clumsily as Nan talks about her dreams of escaping the physically abusive Kyle, running off to Los Angeles, and writing a survivor’s memoir about her violent marriage. First, though, she’s devised an unorthodox method of comeuppance for hubby: taping him to his La-Z-Boy, drizzling honey all over his body, and leaving the front door open to attract the local bear population. She gets plenty of literary inspiration from two unlikely sources –– the aforementioned Bard and former president Jimmy Carter. (Quotes by both are periodically projected onto large screens that flank the stage.) More practical assistance is provided by her two friends: Sweetheart (Kristi Mills), a stripper who dreams of movie stardom, and Simon (Jerry Downey), a flamboyant gay man Nan has known since junior high school. The three of them re-enact various scenes from Nan and Kyle’s courtship and marriage, with Kyle as the lone and very captive audience member. The play’s main source of suspense is whether Nan’s resolve will break and, seduced by the boilerplate promises of “I’ll never hurt you again,” she’ll return to her drunken tyrant of a husband.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear had the chance to explore some truly edgy terrain. It could have aimed a few barbs at the creepy fetishization of victimhood that self-empowerment credos, at their worst, can fall into. More uncomfortably, the show might have explored Nan’s share of the responsibility in staying so long in an unacceptable domestic situation. Instead, playwright Gunderson opts for a cheerful but predictable white-trash fable about one Georgia woman who, aided by two lovable misfit friends, stops standing by her man. Nothing wrong with that, but audiences will be forgiven for wondering why Carter, Shakespeare, and National Geographic documentaries about predator animals are dragged into it.
While Exit, Pursued by a Bear can sometimes feel trite, it’s rarely dull, thanks to director Scott’s work with her energetic cast. Staniforth conveys Nan’s chaotic storm of mixed emotions and attitudes effectively –– one moment she’s determined and proud, the next fearful and indecisive, and all the fluctuations feel authentic. As the deer-hunting, bourbon-swilling Kyle, Anderson has a boyish redneck appeal that makes Nan’s vacillations truly plausible. Mills adds wonderful little character details to the stripper Sweetheart, including a habit of raising her forefinger and swaying her neck when she makes a point, an affectation favored by some black women and gay men that she has clearly absorbed from watching daytime talk shows. Speaking of gay men, the word “fabulous” is at this point a pretty lazy substitute for character development, and it’s one of the first words exclaimed by Downey when Simon makes his inevitably grand entrance. To be sure, Downey has mastered the character’s swishy shtick and energizes it with a refreshing vindictiveness. I just wish that Simon, like the rest of Circle’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear, had a little more substance to match his nervy theatrical style.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Thru Sat, Sep 14, at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $20-30. 817-877-3040.