Grin & Bear It

Dobama's Grizzly Mama finds the funny in political mayhem

Do liberals, those self-proclaimed avatars of justice and rationality, harbor their own secret political assassination fantasies? And if they do, can you blame them? After all, progressive leaders from JFK to MLK have been taken out by hostile shooters. But no high-profile conservatives have been felled in a similar way. Doesn't seem fair somehow.

Which is why left-leaning folks may get a giddy vicarious kick out of the homicidal plotting that goes on in Grizzly Mama, Dobama Theatre's world premiere of a script by local playwright George Brant. And if you think that title sounds like what a certain gun-wielding Alaskan politician calls herself, you win a free box of .22-caliber hollow points.

Taking a lot of interesting chances, Brant finds plenty of dark humor in an inherently unamusing premise. But the 100-minute show (with intermission) feels a bit thin, as the characters remain so resolutely focused on a single, absurdly improbable task that your suspension of disbelief will finally collapse from sheer exhaustion.

There is plenty to disbelieve in this play from the get-go, since the divorced soccer mom Deb hauls her teenage daughter Hannah to Alaska, renting the house next door to the titular mother (who is called Patty Turnbeck, probably to avoid Tea Party reprisals). We are implicitly asked to ignore the fact that anyone moving that close to a controversial presidential candidate would be vetted back to her Jurassic ancestors.

But no, Deb apparently just moved in with no problems and, packing binoculars and a high-powered rifle with a scope, she proceeds with her assassination project. An initial poisoning gambit fails, resulting in the Turnbecks' dog, Princess, going claws-up after gobbling a tainted fruitcake intended for her master.

Deb then forcibly weans her daughter off the girl's social-media gizmos, and they form an uneasy and grudging alliance in the service of Deb's dream: killing the hated Patty. This time with bullets.

Under the slick direction of Laura Kepley (who is the playwright's wife and associate artistic director at the Cleveland Play House), the piece glides seamlessly. And Brant greases the wheels with a number of amusing lines, as when Hannah complains about their new community by telling her mom, "I go to a high school that teaches AP Intelligent Design!"

But there is more on the playwright's mind than impending mayhem and a few chuckles. It seems that Deb is driven by her connection to her recently deceased mother, Hannah's grandmother. The dearly departed was evidently a rabid, activist lefty, and Deb feels her mother never was proud of her. So Deb's plan to plug Patty is her attempt to square things posthumously.

Mother-daughter dynamics are further roiled when a teenage girl named Laurel knocks on Deb's door. It turns out she is Patty's daughter, and she's looking for a big favor that leads to a shocking (and borderline gratuitous) conclusion.

The strong three-person cast is led by Heather Anderson Boll as Deb, who remarkably creates a credible person in a totally implausible situation. Caitlin Lewins is equally good as Hannah, mastering the blank-eyed adolescent shrug and nailing some funny punch lines. And Erin Scerbak as Laurel is hilarious and touching as her character's story plays out.

Still, we never learn enough about Deb and her stunted relationship with her mother to fully care about Deb's new menacing obsession that flies in the face of her past life and character. If Brant had foregone a little bit of the slapstick and easy "Palin" jokes in favor of a deeper explication of Deb's familial conflicts, the play would resonate more completely.

As it is, however, Grizzly Mama is a blast of non-stereotypical surprises and quite a few laughs. And that's an accomplishment no one can refudiate.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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