By Daedalus Howell
Many of our Christmas entertainment traditions are tales of tribulation—from Jimmy Stewart’s contemplated suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life to The Santa Clause, in which Tim Allen accidentally kills Santa and is conscripted to take his place. Even Charlie Brown’s seasonal affective disorder becomes a kind of wistful melancholia with enough piano jazz.
It stands to reason that writer and performer David Templeton would yoke his yuletide monologue Polar Bears to a similar strategy—“tragedy plus time equals comedy,” as they say. But Templeton isn’t pursuing comedy so much as a sort of stage-borne catharsis given the extremely personal and deeply emotional nature of his source material.
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 grief and an array of misunderstandings (including the inspiration for the title, which will put a lump in your throat), Polar Bears reminds us 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, conveyed with myriad voices—including those of his children and even his own father—approaches the neurotic. Mining his memories for this material must have been grueling, though it’s long been part of his creative process. In Wretch Like Me, Templeton recounts his recovery from a bout of 1970s Christian fundamentalism; in Pinky, an attempt to impress a girl leads to a sort of theatrical kidnapping. Though Templeton’s personal experience is marked by extremes, he refrains from donning the red suit and boots. His commitment to the existence of Santa, however, takes his relationships to the brink.
By the second act it’s clear that Templeton’s son manifested a belief in Santa that endured for far longer than might be thought 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 turn heartbreaking and hilarious, and a 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 considered myself among his many friends at a packed recent performance.)
Templeton’s hindsight, however, is not through rose-tinted glasses—it’s more like a microscope with a slide that is smudged around the edges with Vaseline, which 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.
NOW PLAYING: Polar Bears runs Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm through December 20 at Main Stage West, 104 N. Main Street, Sebastopol; $15 to $27 (Thursday evening performances are “pay what you will.”); mainstagewest.com; 707/823-0177; Not recommended for those who still believe in Santa Claus.