THE ARKANSAW BEAR
Growing Stage Children’s Theater Company
at the Coronet Playhouse
It’s not just sex that children learn about sooner than adults can tell them. A brush with death–whether that of a pet or a relative–can quickly alert a child to life’s ultimate condition. Even so, few plays for children deal directly with death. If it enters the plot at all, death is reserved for bad people and nasty animals; it does not threaten the child’s world.
Aurand Harris, the author of The Arkansaw Bear, is brave enough to believe children are able to hear about death: the play confronts the prospect of irremediable loss and finds consolation in continuity. The Arkansaw Bear (I don’t know why it’s spelled that way) tells how a little girl discovers that life is a gift, and that it’s a duty to pass it along, even as we learn how to let it go. It begins abruptly in darkness as the heroine Tish (her name short for Laetitia or “joy”) cries out from the back of the theater: “Why can’t I see my grandfather?”
Wondering what she did to make her grandfather so sick and how someone who loves her could leave her forever, Tish is torn between feelings of guilt and betrayal; though childlike, her reactions are also achingly universal. Harris uses Star Bright, the star that Tish has implored for an answer, to supply an antidote to Tish’s despair: her grandfather’s death is part of “the great pattern” and “in every ending there’s a new beginning.”
To Tish this is irrelevant and abstract; she has to learn it for herself–she has to meet the World’s Greatest Dancing Bear and his mime assistant in order to understand life as a gift. Different as they are–the aging bear and the child Tish–they share a secret: they’re both running from death. For the dancing bear the race is almost over; the feared Ringmaster (death) will soon take him to the “center ring.” He no longer wonders “Where did I come from?” but “Where am I going?” Not “Why me?” but “When?” He’s afraid of this coming darkness; if he can’t become an exception, Dancing Bear at least wants to cling to life’s loveliness a bit longer, make his peace, and, above all, pass on his celebrated dances to a disciple who can perpetuate his art.
Providentially he finds a young protege, the Arkansaw Bear, a cub who’s willing to learn his dances so the dancing bear can “leave his footprint” behind. At the end, after telling Tish that whistling in the dark will give her courage, he hands her a balloon–which she symbolically releases as he departs. “You gotta let go . . . and go on.” It’s advice Tish can now act on as she learns that, yes, her grandfather died–but so much about him lives through her; she must make sure she passes on this special trust.
Much about The Arkansaw Bear resembles the searcher’s journey in a medieval morality play, but, except for that cryptic allusion to the “center ring,” the play is scrupulously secular in its depiction of death. Never abstract or dour, Antony van Zyl’s staging benefits from the plucky jollity of Josh White III as the renowned dancing bear and Marisa Soltis’s comic miming as his silence-is-golden assistant. (Children instinctively love mime; it’s a taste you either acquire early or, as with me, miss out on for the rest of your life.) In the rich title role, Michele Gregory plays the young protege with a combination of gusto and charm that’s sure to win kids over. Jennifer Gould plays Tish’s highs and lows with unremitting intensity.
Well intentioned as it is, the play is not without flaws. There’s much too little music here for a children’s play and slow spots where the dropped energy could make kids fidget.