Dark and thoughtful, 'Grizzly Mama' a refreshing comedy at the Gamm

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If the purpose of theatrical productions is to hold aloft that famous “mirror up to nature,” there are times when it is necessary to utilize a crazy fun-house mirror. That’s certainly the case with “Grizzly Mama” now playing at The Gamm Theatre. The play is a wild and dark satire about, among many other topics, the politics of extremism. And in our politically polarized 21st century America, sometimes one needs a reflection of wacky distortions to depict how things really are.

But though this show encompasses the world of exaggerated political cartoon, the play, written with wit and insight by George Brant, is a bit more than that. Unlike our fun-house mirror, “Grizzly Mama” delves beneath the surface of the crazy events it depicts and muses, often quite amusingly, on the consequences of our actions, especially those spurred on by our political commitment.

And at the heart of the lampoon this is also a family story, a tale of mothers and daughters and the sheer difficulty inherent in those roles; the burdens involved of living up to legacies and expectations.

Seems like a heady mix, but all is served with a light touch and a lot of laughs. At the outset we encounter Deb Marshall, an ordinary housewife who has abruptly uprooted herself and her daughter Hannah to the wilds of Alaska where they have ensconced themselves next door to the home of Patti Turnbeck, the eponymous “Grizzly Mama”, whose resemblance to a famously outspoken Alaskan Vice Presidential candidate of years past is highly intentional. Deb, though herself utterly ordinary is the daughter of a famous feminist firebrand from the Seventies or so, think Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem here. Her new proximity to the politician is no accident. Deb is on a mission to make a bold and outrageous political statement, the nature of which the play does not initially reveal and strives mightily to keep mysterious, so I am loath to reveal it here in print. Let us merely say that Deb intends for considerable mayhem to ensue from her outrageous plot.

Her notion of a type of revenge is reflected in the mini history of women in public life afforded here, the political pendulum sweep from radical left to reactionary right. It is to the play’s credit that no one point of view is left off the hook, indeed, the inherent absurdity here is that each of the two extremes believe wholly in the rightness of their cause and that “their bullets have been blessed by God.”

The madcap plot hatched by Deb is well played for big laughs as well as real stakes and is no more or less insanely absurd than many a news story today, but that structure serves as a framework for the many for the Playwright’s many concerns. The consequences of extreme actions are explored here, as are the underlying intentions: Is Deb seeking to avenge feminism or to make a final attempt not to be a disappointment her illustrious mother and lead a life more radical than ordinary?

Amidst the craziness of both Deb’s and the play’s plot, “Grizzly Mama” is essentially a family story concerned with the deep-seated need of both mothers and daughters to live up to each others expectations. Brant has written an outrageously wacky comedy about the great political divide of out time, but has filled the farce with viable and interesting female characters rather than mere political caricatures.

These characters are fully fleshed out by some wonderful performances and crisp, pointed direction. The always bright and appealing Casey Seymour-Kim plays Deb. She’s a comic delight onstage, but it is her full commitment to the craziness of her scheme that fuels the fun and keeps her character earnest, wholly human and likable. The chemistry between her and Amanda Ruggerio, who plays her daughter Hannah, is sharp and winning, and Ruggerio brings a fine combination of perkiness and petulance to her portrayal of a daughter who would much rather be back in what she deems to be civilization.

Betsy Rinaldi is quite sharp and savvy as Laurel, the daughter of arch-conservative Patti Turnbeck, who, like all these well realized women onstage, simply isn’t the daughter her mother wanted her to be.

Director Rachel Walshe keeps the action taut and nimble, and Michael McGarty’s set design is a perfect picture of stark woodland hominess.

Brant’s script contains some arch and glib observations (the local high school teaches 'AP Creationism') and for the most part is satire is deft and dead-on. What didn’t work for me were the many sequences when the two teen-aged girls speak almost exclusively in ‘cell phone text-speak’, which consists entirely of acronyms and abbreviations. A little of this goes a long way, alas this device is used more than a little far after the point has been made.

There is as well, towards the end, a moment of betrayal and creation of collateral damage that seemed to me almost pulled out of a hat, far more plot device than plausible. But that’s a debatable point. What makes the situation of this dark comedy work is that “Grizzly Mama” thoroughly explores the personal consequences of extremism, the inevitable and logical extension of crazy madcap plots, both in the onstage and real-life sense, and that makes the startling ending ring absolutely true.

One only needs to turn on the news, and not just in an election year, to see highly unlikely events and improbable politicians, all of which serves to comprise a seemingly implausible fiction.

“Grizzly Mama”, fun, dark and thoughtful, is a very refreshing comedy for these times of ours, when it seems as if you just can’t make this stuff up.

“Grizzly Mama”, now playing at The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket, through February 7.

Gamm Theatre

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