Imagine the Dixie Chicks’ hit song “Goodbye Earl” come to life in a play that busts down the fourth wall to talk to the audience face-to-face in a Southern drawl. That’s what we get in “Exit, Pursued by a Bear,” the uneven but often hilarious and poignant production from Theatre Seven of Chicago.
Nan (Tracey Kaplan) decides that the best way to leave her abusive husband is to exorcise the demons of their marriage with the help of re-enactments, two enthusiastic friends, and a lot of Jimmy Carter quotes. She ties up a drunk Kyle (Ryan Hallahan), and when he comes to, she reveals her plan to make him see the error of his ways with the help of theater, and then leave him as bait for bears from the neighboring woods.
Lauren Gunderson’s script breezes past some necessary character development to keep the plot moving, which is unfortunate, especially in a play that talks directly about the importance of narrative. Nan’s friends, Simon (Ryan Lanning) and Sweetheart (Elizabeth Hope Williams), are caricatures of the sassy gay man and the stripper with a heart of gold, respectively. But Lanning and Williams bring real affection to their roles, and Nan’s ability to draw strength from their friendship is what drives the action and keeps the story grounded.
Gunderson adds depth to the comedy by allowing Kyle to have his say, and showing just how difficult it is for Nan to leave him. These tender moments almost make it harder to snap back to the zany antics, but for the most part director Cassy Sanders makes it work. In the end, Kyle has taken a good look at how rotten his soul has become, and Nan takes one last look at him before leaving for good.