On stage

Alec Michael Coles and Kelly Hajek in Arizona Repertory Theatre’s production of “Tigers Be Still,” which runs through Oct. 8.

Ed Flores

A tiger is on the loose in “Tigers Be Still.”

Now that he’s free, the characters in the Kim Rosenstock play would like to be, as well.

They prowl in the cages of their depression, their guilt, their fear.

The comedy about those dark subjects is currently on stage at the University of Arizona’s Arizona Repertory Theatre.

The Brent Gibbs-directed production is fast-paced and funny, and he pulls stellar performances out of his student cast.

The play opens as the school principal announces all recesses have been canceled because a tiger has escaped from the zoo. The fear of the wild animal is always lurking in the play.

The story centers on Sherry (Kelly Hajek), a perky 20-something who has just pulled out of a can’t-get-out-of-bed depression.

She’s landed a job as an art teacher at a school — her first job ever. Her assistant: the principal’s son, Zack (Michael Schulz), who is battling his own depression since his mother died in an auto crash and he feels responsible. Sherry’s also been charged with conducting art therapy sessions with the teenage Zack.

Those sessions must be done at her home. Trouble is, her also-depressed sister, Grace (Kristian Arseneault), is stuck on the living room sofa, chugging Jack Daniels, covered in trash, and watching “Top Gun” on a loop while she tries to recover from a cheating fiancé.

Upstairs at this home is a mother we never see. She has been in her bed for many months because a medication she must take has made her fat. Not how a one-time prom queen wants to be seen, don’tchaknow.

Throw into this mix the school principal, Joseph (Alec Michael Coles), who keeps a gun in his office in case he has to shoot the tiger that has escaped from the zoo, worries about his son’s guilt and depression, and struggles with trying to overcome his own grief. Then there is his longing for Sherry’s mother: They had been high school sweethearts and he never forgot her.

Yeah, pretty dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, there’s that tiger. We never meet him but we know what he’s doing there — he underscores that the dangers in living are always hanging around. At any moment, we can come face to face with that, and what then? Do we stop moving, growing, living, just because there is some terror that might roar up and bite us?

The play, presented in a series of vignettes and with Sherry serving as the host/narrator, has its problems. Often times you wonder where is it going. And it walks a line between a painful reality and a fantastical story. Sometimes it crosses that line and becomes a tad hard to embrace. And the end is just too tidy.

But these performances are so compelling you hang on. Hajek’s Sherry was grounded and honest; Schulz’s Zack a gawky teen who makes his schoolboy crush and yearning to break free palpable; Arseneault is deliciously over the top as the drunk and heartbroken Grace, and Coles makes us feel for his geeky school principal yearning for an old love and a happy son.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter: @kallenStar