'Tigers' knows what it's like to be young and restless

THEATER REVIEW: "Tigers Be Still" at Theater Wit ★★★

In "Tigers Be Still,"  Kasey Foster plays Grace and Mary Winn Heider is Sherry.

In "Tigers Be Still," Kasey Foster plays Grace and Mary Winn Heider is Sherry. (May 1, 2012)

The mother and two grown daughters at the heart of "Tigers Be Still," an affecting, sweet, darkly comic new play by a young writer named Kim Rosenstock, are all struggling to stay out of bed.

It's not the pull of amorous activities, nor even a matter of being tired. These women, creatures of a recessionary America who live by economic necessity under the same roof, are, to varying degrees and for three different but common reasons, suffering from depression. And if you've ever had a morning when the mere idea of facing the new day is enough to send you back under the covers until noon, you'll likely empathize.

One daughter, Grace (Kasey Foster) has recently been dumped by her boyfriend — she's managed to graduate to sleeping on the couch and making love to a bottle of Jack Daniels, surrounded by stuff purloined from her ex's place. The mother, whom we never see, has become so embarrassed by her physical appearance that she makes calls to her daughters downstairs rather than emerge from the bedroom her husband abandoned.

It's Grace's 24-year-old sister Sherry (Mary Winn Heider), the main narrator of this modestly scaled but moving story of small but potent personal victories, who has made the most progress in coming to grips with reality. Despite her degree in art therapy leading mostly to a slew of rejection letters from potential employers, she's finally landed a job as a school teacher, with a gig on the side tutoring Zack (Matt Farabee), the principal's disaffected, 18-year-old kid, an employment veteran of CVS and Walgreens who badly needs her help. But even Sherry's tentative step into the great outdoors has a scary side. There is, Sherry tells us, a tiger marauding around her neighborhood.

This play is one of several new works coming to Chicago in the next few months that were developed at the Roundabout Theatre in New York. It's written in a breezy, youthful style that might put you in mind of "Girls" on HBO, or maybe the 2007 movie "Juno." Rosenstock treats that beast on the loose literally — the highschool principal, played by Guy Massey, carries a rifle and plans to shoot on sight. But you can also read it as a symbol of the new American reality for the young and middle-class, especially those with arts degrees, trying to get out from the forces that now threaten an atrophied suburbia. Well, that and the difficulty of finding a nice boyfriend these days.

Although very well cast, director Jeremy Weschler's accessible Theater Wit production is slightly underpaced and it occasionally topples into the twee — Massey , for example, plays it a tad too broad throughout. But the sound design, by Christopher Kriz, makes the show bop along to a playlist of bittersweet tunes. And there are trio of carefully toned performances to enjoy here, including a gutsy turn from Foster, who forges a character too depressed to look like anything but a slob. Despite her loser bonafides, Foster is actually at her best when her gal finally takes some steps toward recovery, with the actress beautifully revealing the tentative way in which we get back in the game after our hearts have been broken. Farabee is similarly impressive, giving his alienated drugstore dude plenty of bite but also showing us a young man whose skills are not fully utilized at the scanner. And then there's Heider, who's just terrific.

Heider is a regular as Mary Hatch in the American Theater Company production of "It's a Wonderful Life," wherein she long has perfectly encapsulated why George Bailey did the right thing in sticking around. Her work as Sherry contains much the same guileless, honest, optimistic and kind qualities, but it's also a moving picture of the downside of the freedom that her Capra-esque librarian never enjoyed.

Sherry doesn't want or need a George Bailey to take care of her, she makes clear, but she loves her family, has things to offer, and she'd surely like a world without tigers. And such is the appeal of Rosenstock's character, and the woman playing her, that it feels like no one deserves it more.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through June 3

Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $18-$36 at 773-975-8150 or theaterwit.org

CHICAGO

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