The Arkansaw Bear
The magic and spirit of Second Youth Family Theatre's production of The Arkansaw Bear make for a moving story of a child coping with a grandparent's death
Running Time: 1 hr
When this Aurand Harris play premiered at the University of Texas in 1980, it proved controversial not because of its language or its story, but because of its subject matter and its target: It's a play written for young people about death.
Tish, a very young girl, takes some flowers to her grandfather one day but is met at the door by her sorrowful aunt and mother. Her grandfather is dying, and they won't allow Tish to see him. Tish runs away to her favorite tree, where she makes a wish upon a star. Lo and behold, the star hears her, but when the star tells her that stopping death is impossible, she wishes instead for understanding. The star grants her wish and flies away, soon to be followed by a mime (don't flinch too hard you'll love this mime) and an aging, failing dancing bear.
"Quality" is a word that I associate with a Second Youth Family Theatre production, and this one is no exception, because director Jennifer Lynn Cameron gets almost uniformly excellent work from all concerned. J. Richard Smith's set is a thing of dark simplicity that echoes the theme of the play quietly and expertly, and WesleAnn Polkowske's costumes mine an earthy, dark palette as well, with flashes of brighter color echoing among the characters. The actors all are engaging and enjoyable because they trust their story, keep it simple, and have fun. In fact, because they seem to be having so much fun, Julianna Elizabeth Wright as the star and Bobby Malone as the mime stand out, but each of the performances has something to recommend it, especially that of Brandon Tijerina, who manages to embody a bear without ever making any overt attempt to do so.
Second Youth is suggesting this production for children 10 and over, and while I appreciate their concern death is, after all, a touchy subject I wish I had taken my 5-year-old to see it. I think my younger son would have appreciated both the magic and spirit of the production, and while the subject matter might have upset him, perhaps even moved him to tears (it did me), it wasn't that long ago that he first told me that he did not want me to die. I can't remember what I told him then, but I wish it had been that I will never die, but always live in the hearts of those who love and remember me just like a certain, truly great dancing bear.