In 2012, a friend told playwright Aaron Mark a grisly tale. While she was driving to her vacation home in the Poconos with a friend, a deer came out of nowhere and jumped in front her car, becoming critically injured. As the poor animal lay in front of her blood-spattered car, emitting unearthly, horrific groans of pain, the driver and her friend knew they had to put the poor thing out of its misery. But which one of them? And how? Did either of them have the fortitude to do what needed to be done? What would it do to their relationship going forward? And what would it say about their humanity?
Though he had, until that point, primarily been a director of musicals, Mark was gripped by the provocative nature of that moment in his friend’s life and finding the answers to those questions … so he wrote Deer. Billed as a “pitch-black comedy about normal people who snap,” the show will begin its two-week run at Restless Artists Theatre in Sparks on Friday, Dec. 10.
As I sat down for a sneak preview of the show, I had director Doug Mishler’s early descriptions rolling around in my mind. Arguably, this show has elicited more buzz for RAT than any other. It had originally been slated to open in March 2020 until COVID hit. As if that weren’t enough, one of its lead actors was diagnosed with cancer; another was forced to return to her Canadian home. “Doe the Deer,” the stuffed deer cast as the “lead,” sat patiently in the corner of the theater, waiting her chance to shine as theatergoers took selfies with her. Mishler’s excitement to finally unveil this production two years in the making is palpable. Now, nearly two years since the show was originally scheduled to take the stage, RAT has managed to bring back two original members of the three-person cast.
No question that the buzz surrounding the show has to do with its unusual premise: Ken (James Miller), an author, and his wife, Cynthia (Debra Lynn Hull), have been married for 30 years. Now, finally, after raising a daughter and nursing her elderly mother, the two are getting away for a long-overdue vacation alone at their weekend house in the Poconos, ostensibly to rekindle their relationship. The play opens on the two in the car, with Cynthia driving and Ken babbling away, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she has yet to respond to him.
Suddenly … BAM! They crash headlong into a deer. Thus begins a descent into madness as the bloody, lifeless corpse of “Doe the Deer,” as Cynthia has bizarrely named it, starts taking over their lives, revealing the deep cracks in their marriage — a gory symbol of the lifeless thing that has been growing between them for decades and a means by which they can exorcise it. The play quickly becomes an examination of what people will do when thrust into extraordinary circumstances … and how the results often surprise us.
Though it’s technically a comedy, I’d use the term loosely — the laughs are usually accompanied by uncomfortable squirming. You’ll find your alliances with the characters frequently shifting, and, as you imagine how you might behave when confronted with the circumstances the characters face, you might even question your own moral compass.
If you’ve had your fill of the typical saccharine-sweet holiday fare on offer this month, Deer might be the perfect antidote. Without question, it’s the only local theatrical performance you’ll find this holiday season that confronts such painful ideas head on.
Restless Artists Theatre’s Deer runs Dec. 10-13 and 17-20. The theater is located at 295 20th St., Sparks.
Cover photo: Eric Marks