The deer takes the hit, but it is the people in the car who suffer the most.
“Deer,” a play by New York-based writer Aaron Mark having its world-premiere performance at Stage West, pivots on a single, harrowing moment: A couple driving to their vacation home after a funeral collides with a deer. Initially, we are concerned with the survival of the unfortunate beast. But ultimately it is the survival of the couple that is in doubt.
“Deer” is a billed as a dark comedy, but it sure has a lot more “dark” than “comedy.” This play is about the nature of madness, and there is nothing frivolous or funny about that.
Ken (John S. Davies) and Cynthia (Lisa Fairchild) are a long-married couple who should be anticipating a glorious new chapter in their lives. Their typically millennial daughter, who has been clinging to the family home like an invasive mold, has finally moved out. And Cynthia’s mother, who has also overstayed (or outlived) her welcome, has passed away. But to say that Cynthia is not exactly comfortable in her newly emptied nest would be the understatement of the century.
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This becomes immediately (and allegorically) clear after the collision with the deer. Ken is freaked out by this wife’s reaction, but he has issues of his own. A semi-successful writer, he may have finally written a truly worthwhile novel (“A novella, actually,” he often points out), and he fluctuates wildly between wanting to make time for his writing or for his wife, and the new life they should be having together.
All of these elements are in play as the couple deals with the deer and their increasingly complicated relationship. It is difficult to say more, for fear of revealing too much about a show that surprises its audience frequently.
The primary strength of this play is Mark’s dialog, which is crisp and real throughout. He is aided enormously by the excellent work of Davies and Fairchild, veteran performers who are always a rich joy to watch. The direction by Garret Storms rises to the high bar set by the script and the actors. He does an especially good job of preventing this two-hander from becoming talky or stagnant. Plus, Michael Sullivan’s expansive set is a winner.
One slight problem with the play is its structure. The first act is much longer than the second, making the conclusion seem a bit more rushed than it is. That imbalance may make some patrons wish for a more embellished ending.
It is impossible not to groan internally when you see a playwright make his male lead a writer. Mark really seems to have more imagination than that.
The worldview of the script is also very New York-centric (there is not an Off-Broadway house in Manhattan that would not eat this show up with a spoon), but that is not as off-putting in this case as that common fault usually is.
Finally, the opening-night performance got off to a stuttering start (lights and sound cues came up and down a few times before the curtain went up), and the all-important deer prop did not function properly. A world premiere deserves better preparedness.
But on the whole, this show is a nice bit of theater. It makes you believe and care about its characters, and it does not always telegraph its moves. Stage West has pulled off a bit of a coup by debuting this work. It will be extremely surprising if this show is not produced elsewhere — whether it is deer season or not.