The premiere of “Running Bear” by Raul Garza marks Hyde Park Theatre’s return to fully-produced live theatre for the first time in two years. It also marks the return of the award winning local playwright’s work to Austin stages, making it a doubly welcome production.
Two years ago, this play was Hyde Park Theatre’s selection for their annual new play workshop, and “Running Bear” was live-streamed as an audio play in the fall of 2020. Now on stage in Hyde Park Theatre’s intimate space, the production takes full advantage of the live audience. Using a simple premise, the intense two-hander dives into poignant issues including gun violence and sexual assault.
The play follows two strangers, Emily (Macy Butler), a 17-year-old girl, and Lucas (Mical Trejo), a middle-aged man, who meet on a bridge in Running Bear Park in the Dallas suburb of Irving. Each of them would prefer to be alone, and while trying to encourage the other to leave, they strike up a conversation. What starts as hostile turns confessional as both try to make sense of life.
While attempting to bully Lucas into leaving, Emily sparks up a generational conflict, through which playwright Garza explores the often slow pace of societal progress and our duty to seek it anyway.
When Lucas describes the poor treatment he received early in his career as the only Latino in his firm, Emily dismisses his view that he forged paths to success for future architects of color. Instead, she charges that by accepting discrimination without more of a fight, he took the easy way out and left the real battles to her generation.
Throughout the play touches on the characters’ relationship to place and their experiences coming of age amidst crisis. Emily and Lucas spiral through a dialogue that comes from the heart, full of ideas about pressing issues, revealing their deepest layers and traumas.
Aside from a brief prologue, all of the play’s action takes place on the bridge portion of Mark Pickell’s set design, which also includes a wall treatment evoking the treeline and a floor treatment that combines architectural drawing and a suggestion of the park’s topography, both by scenic painter Lilly Percifield. The bridge itself is a large platform on which the characters maneuver, alternatively holding their ground or tenuously comforting each other.
This bridge is both the play’s setting and an important thematic element but under Rosalind Faires’ able direction, the symbolism never feels heavy-handed. The characters discuss the philosophy of bridges – whether joining two places is always good or not- and yes, the characters build relational bridges. Lucas is even this bridge’s designer. But the meanings of this setting are layered.
Though the bridge has earned him professional recognition, for Lucas, the site has associations with tragic childhood events. For Emily, it’s a place where she comes to think, a place she shared with someone who turned out to be far worse than she thought, and the place where she failed to support a friend who needed her, one of her biggest regrets. The seemingly random bridge in a North Texas park becomes imbued with a strong sense of place, as is one of Garza’s strengths.
Both Butler and Trejo bring immense talent to their roles, delivering intense emotional moments and balancing the play’s often heavy subject matter.
Hyde Park Theater’s production of “Running Bear” is at its core a heart to heart, speaking to many of the anxieties of the moment with striking intensity and sensitivity.
‘Running Bear’ continues through July 16 at Hyde Park Theatre, hydeparktheatre.org