Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Tigers Be Still
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's review of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Akemi Okamura and Melissa Weinstein
Photo by Susan Mah Photography
Her mother has not left the upstairs bedroom nor been seen in a year, communicating only by phone—all because she believes she is getting fat. Her sister, upset by a broken engagement, lies bundled on "a couch that smells like tears," nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels and alternating death-like sleep with repeated viewings of Top Gun. Her new and newly widowed boss pines for a love-lost from long-ago high school, cannot communicate with his teenage son, and is paranoid about escaped tigers running loose in the town. His sullen and often silent son, her first client as an art therapist, carries a deep scar from his mom's recent death and spends much alone time in her closet of shoes. And she is trying to rise from own months of post-Masters-degree/no-job-offer depression in the midst of all their angst, telling us now "the story of how I stopped being a total disaster." With all this depression in the air, of course Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still is a laugh a minute as City Lights Theater Company soundly presents this quirky, hilarious, and in the end, touching comedy about the journeys of five (one never seen) people.

Melissa Weinstein is the narrator and first-time teacher Sherry, who manically rushes about, talking a mile a minute, dealing with her own doubts about her teaching abilities. She does so while also trying to persuade her mom to hang up the phone and open the door, her sister to unbundle herself off the couch and take a shower, her teenage client to open up and just draw a house in his journal, and her new boss not to fire her because she escaped the lunchtime monitors with her elementary class to take a field trip among escaped tigers. With dimpled smiles, darting eyes that may tear up any minute, frantic hands, and a voice that modulates up and down the scale at amazing speeds, Ms. Weinstein comes time and again so close to over-acting her Sherry's run-around state-of-mind (crossing over the boundary a few times with her bit-too-loud outbursts) but mostly keeps things enough in check in order to draw lots of laughs and lots of empathy.

Akemi Okamura, like a curled-up sloth, moves from the couch rarely and then only slowly as she sips her bourbon, snores in a coma-like state, or stares blindly at a screen full of Tom Cruise. Grace is definitely depressed about losing her fiancé Troy to another woman, but she is also angry, as seen in her sudden outbursts of screaming, swearing, and jumping about— angry enough to keep his two barking dogs locked in the basement and to have absconded (and now holding ransom) everything from his golf club to his spice cabinet to his bathroom door knob to his retainer. This is a woman who cares not that her sister and her new (and only) client are now on the couch with her for his therapy session. So much does she not care that she plops her socked feet and baggy gym pants across both of them as they try to work.

From his office, Principal Joseph Morris announces seriously, "Tigers have escaped ... They are fast ... They are mean ... They have stripes. Now have a nice day." With a mixture of paranoia, pathos, and paternal frustration, Keith Marshall as Joseph talks a lot to a son who just looks blankly in another direction, tries to hold together a now-motherless household making disastrous dinners and hilariously trying to thread a needle for button-sewing, and is ready to protect with aimed shotgun his home and his school from the threat of tigers. In deep and sexy-as-he-can-make-it voice, he also sends a "hello" through Sherry to her self-imprisoned mom, the former queen to his king at their high school prom.

Each of the above performers brings a lot of fun and heart to their peculiar persona. But the real star of the evening is young Sean Okuniewicz as the teenage son and art therapist client Zach. Like a live version of the teenager in the comic strip "Zits," Zach moves at his own pace, with his own language, and his own timing; he elicits many audience laughs along the way. He usually talks in three to four word phrases—pausing, looking off into space, jerking his body to one side or the other, and then plunging onward in the conversation—or not. He may appear and disappear at any time, usually unannounced. But Zach is more than just a source of laughs for us. His presence is intensely felt by a facial expression that maps a deep hurt unexpressed, by his earnest pleas for help that have no words to them and only come from his eyes, and by an occasional opening up of a flood of words that flow unfettered by his usual censoring—words about an inner guilt eating at him. For anyone who has ever had a teenage son in the house, this Zach is the real deal in all his craziness, aloofness, and emotional vulnerability.

Virginia Drake directs with flurried fun as well as tender heart this cast of four (as well as the unseen but heard mother, dogs, and tiger). Multiple scenes overlap in both three beautifully appointed, permanent sets as well as several easily mobile ones by Ron Gasparinetti. Anna Chase has created costumes that define the current states of mind of the four characters; and Nick Kumamoto and George Psarras contribute, respectively, effective lighting for changes in scenes and time of day as well as sounds of dogs, tigers, and school bells to highlight the action.

City Lights Theater Company has taken the extremely clever script of Kim Rosenstock and produced, with fine production team and talented cast, a Tigers Be Still that keeps the audience in tears—either through hundreds of reasons to laugh or a few heartthrob moments as the darkness of each person's depression gives way to a new dawning of hope.

Tigers Be Still continues through February 21, 2016, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose. Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday - Friday, 1-5 p.m.

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