Many of our Christmas entertainment traditions are tales of tribulation from Jimmy Stewart contemplating suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life to Charlie Brown’s seasonal affective disorder which becomes a kind of wistful melancholia with enough piano jazz.
So, it stands for reason that writer and performer David Templeton would yoke is yuletide monologue, Polar Bears, to a similar strategy. “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” But Templeton isn’t pursuing comedy so as much as a stage-borne catharsis.
And he succeeds.
Polar Bears is inspired by the true events that followed Templeton’s divorce from and the untimely death of the mother of his two young children and how he endeavored, against incredible odds, to keep the spirit of Christmas alive. Through funeral arrangements and an array of misunderstandings (including the inspiration for the title which will put a lump in your throat,) Polar Bears reminds that our children’s belief in Santa may not be the best measure for our belief in ourselves as parents.
Well-directed by local theater veteran Sheri Lee Miller, the collaboration must have been akin to a protracted psychotherapy session. Though overcompensation is the modus operandi of many a divorced dad, Templeton’s story approaches the neurotic.
By the second act it’s clear that Templeton’s son manifested a belief in Santa that endured long beyond what many might think healthy, or at least exceeded the initial benefit of Templeton’s efforts. The repercussions, of course, are grist for a dramatic confrontation that is by turns heartbreaking –and hilarious. And it’s testament to the raw honesty with which Templeton confronts himself as a father.
Templeton is a writer first and an actor second – not a distant second, but enough that the latter sometimes has to play catch up with the former. At worst, Templeton has a tendency toward recitation, which, at nearly two hours of live performance, is a feat in itself. At his best, Templeton seems to eschew total fidelity to his text and speaks truly to the emotion of the moment. It’s like he’s speaking to a friend about one of the most challenging periods of his life. (Full disclosure: I consider myself among the playwright’s many friends who packed recent performance).
Templeton’s hindsight, however, is not through rose-tinted glasses it’s more like a microscope whose slide is smudged around the edges with Vaseline. This affords it a kind of Golden Age of Hollywood-style nostalgia despite the rigorous self-examination. Polar Bears may not restore your belief in Santa Claus but might restore your belief in parenthood.
Polar Bears plays Thursdays through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m., through December 20 at Main Stage West, 104 N. Main Street, Sebastopol. Tickets are $15 to $27 and can be had by calling (707) 823-0177, or by visiting mainstagewest.com.
Not recommended for those who still believe in Santa Claus.