'Feeding the Bear' is a painfully recognizable act in this touching play

WILTON MANORS, Fla. -- A young man with a life threatening illness decides to become infected with the HIV virus. He figures contracting it represents his best chance at receiving healthcare.

A black man at the turn of the century makes a fortune by composing minstrel songs.

These storylines from two shocking, bold plays featuring contradictions stem from playwright Michael Aman’s imagination.

The title of Aman’s most recent play? “Feeding the Bear.”

It’s not quite what you think.

“Feeding the Bear,” which is receiving its world premiere at Island City Stage near Ft. Lauderdale, doesn’t contain quite as shocking a contradiction as the other two aforementioned plays. And “Bear’s” plot isn’t nearly as original as “The Unbleached American,” about the minstrel song composer or “POZ,” about the ailing man.

But if “Feeding the Bear” doesn’t exactly break new ground, it works primarily because it’s the type of story with which many can identify. It’s a work that will make you cry one moment and laugh the next. Sometimes, you’ll do both simultaneously.

“Theater of Identification” might not exist as a recognized genre. But it might as well; many works feature realistic characters and situations that we recognize from our lives and within our circles of family and friends. It’s live theater oftentimes at its most powerful.

“Feeding the Bear” is the clever title with which Aman has thought up for his newest touching, funny, but less-than-stellar play.

It’s about two middle-aged siblings caring for and trying to come to terms with their dementia-stricken father over past experiences. A funny, flamboyant transvestite who hosts a television cooking show also figures into the action.

The dementia patient, “Bear” Adams, received his nickname from a childhood incident during which he was hiding. The joke became he was “hibernating,” like a bear.

Aman has extended the nickname into a concrete, if perhaps a bit too harsh metaphor. It seeks to describe the aged man as a “bear” who attacked his son by “feeding” the younger man’s sensitivity toward his body. The son, Joey, has a mental condition called body dysmorphia, characterized by a person’s preoccupation with his/her minor or imaginary physical flaws.

Now, Joey is his dad’s caregiver, feeding the mouth of the “bear” who “attacked” him. In the play, though, we never really get a sense of how harsh the elder man was toward his son.

There’s one scene in particular that vividly conveys how Joey’s disorder affects his now adult life. In the scene, Joey, an English teacher, is discussing with his class (we imagine students are present) William Golding’s classic tale “Lord of the Flies.” In the novel, stranded school-age characters slaughter a pig and pick on a heavyweight boy named Piggy. He becomes one of the “pigs” killed.

Not surprisingly, Joey heavily identifies and sympathizes with Piggy (Joey believes his breasts are too large). He chastises his students for ridiculing the fictional boy in their assigned essay.

“Was it your goal to make fun of Piggy?” he demands.

Then he turns sentimental.

“Find your inner Piggy and cheer him on!” he implores his students and then pathetically roots for Piggy.

"Go Piggy!” he shouts.

In Island City Stage’s wonderfully-acted, sensitively-directed and deftly-designed production, Andrew Rogow pauses to collect himself after his classroom outburst. He betrays an expression of embarrassment, as though he accidentally passed gas and knows the students will point the finger at him.

Before the scene ends, Joey tells the class the next lesson will be on “King Lear,” one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies. It’s about an aging king, possibly stricken with dementia, stripped of his dignity and sanity by two of his three daughters.

It would have been interesting and proper for Aman to include a scene in which he teaches that play. How would teaching a work about a man so similar to his father affect Joey in the moment?

Kevin Reilley brings to mind Lear in his portrayal of “Bear” as a man with big, confused and wild expressions. Reilley’s “Bear” is like a tempest about to spiral out of control.

It’s an outstanding, tour-de-force performance that also includes subtlety.

Reilley’s eyes widen. He pleadingly, pathetically calls for his wife, who died some time ago. Seemingly uncontrollable, violent gestures overtake him, as though he’s having a seizure. During other times, the man with the parted yet mussed gray hair lowers his eyebrows in confusion and bitterness. All the while, he’s trying to maintain a sense of dignity.

“This is my home!” he bellows when one of his children suggests he may need to live elsewhere.

No doubt, audience members will shed tears, especially those who’ve cared for an individual in such a state.

Audience members’ eyes will also likely glisten with tears when “Bear” bursts into a bright smile, as his children are bathing him. He looks like a baby being given his first bath. It’s sad, ironic and cathartic; he’s happy, for a change.

The remarkable thing is Reilley’s performance seems so real. Even the uncontrollable motions look natural. Such powerful instances, especially in a theater as intimate as Island City Stage’s, exemplify great acting. The actor disappears into the character.

Reilley, as “Bear,” slowly, wearily, moves. His back is hunched as he makes his way across his house, designed orderly, spaciously and with detail by scenic designer Michael McClain. It’s only tidy, we can rightly assume, because Joey is such a devoted son and cleans up after dad.

Joey’s devoted but clearly rattled at his father’s behavior. In a superb performance, Rogow invests Joey with expressions that vividly convey exasperation and patience that he’s obviously trying his utmost to maintain. But Rogow’s Joey is like a ticking time bomb that’s bound to explode sooner or later. There are times, though, that tenderness envelops the character; as mean as “Bear” can be, as frustrating as the older man can act, he’s still Joey’s father.

As his sister, Chrissy, Niki Fridh twists the character into many knots of nerves. She’s a woman with demons from her past who desperately and quickly needs a massage or some nicotine. Fridh’s Chrissy is in constant motion, pacing the home like a trapped animal about to experience a nervous breakdown. Her voice betrays annoyance and sarcasm. But Like Rogow, Fridh also finds her character’s tenderness. That’s especially true while Chrissy reminisces happily and playfully with her father.

“Feeding the Bear” reminds us that, as depressing as dementia is, a diagnosis doesn’t mean conversation about happy times must stop. People with dementia can have long-term memories.

 Adult children such as Chrissy and Joey don’t have to feel like they’re alone, Aman reminds us. For the siblings, comfort comes in the person of Martini, a transvestite who hosts a lively cooking show during which she assumes various personas. As part of the play’s humor, “Bear” is confused by some of the content of the show.

“I told you not to watch that show around him!” Chrissy tells her brother. It’s bound to perplex an already confused man, especially with the several personas Martini assumes.

This eccentric but loveable cook throws together ingredients like it's second nature for him. By contrast, caring for an elderly individual, especially someone suffering from dementia, isn’t nearly as easy; there aren’t necessarily specific steps to follow, like in cooking, to make the person act just the way you want him or her to. The care-free aura of Martini contrasts nicely with the stress-filled environment of the “Bear’s” house.

Such a television show is just the type of light-hearted diversion a stressed out adult with an ailing, aging parent needs, the play seems to suggest.

 “Feeding the Bear” is unflinchingly honest. But the danger of presenting a play with such a heart-breaking topic is a production can be depressing. Thankfully, Aman and playwright Michael Leeds leaven the play with much-needed humor and brightness, not just in the cooking show scenes.

Ardean Landhuis’ multi-colored lighting brightens during the television episodes. The many colors of light can bring to mind a rainbow, a symbol of LGBT and gay pride. It should be noted, however, that the focus of “Feeding the Bear” is not gay life or themes. Appropriately, the lighting dims during darker moments.

Johnnie Bowls, in a cross-dressing role, is deliciously showy and outlandish as the unorthodox cooking show host. The character’s colorful, appealing costumes, designed by Peter A. Lovello, reinforce her lively personality.

Martini’s not without his own problems, and Bowls convincingly holds back emotions on air. Joey meets Martini at a gay bar, and they learn they face similar issues.

Bowls’ Martini imparts a tenderness in his scenes with Joey and they display good chemistry. Martini is Joey’s “shoulder to cry on.”

There’s some comical interaction between Martini and Bear. But it would be interesting to see what more scenes featuring them alone would add to the play.

“Feeding the Bear” could use some work, but it’s top-notch “Theater of Identification” or “Theater of Recognition.”

With its work on “Feeding the Bear,” Island City Stage shows why it almost swept the Carbonell Awards (honoring South Florida’s best theatre), with its production of “The Timekeepers” last year. Also last season, ICS received a Carbonell nomination for “Best New Work” for “Poz.”

The company, according to a brochure, is committed to producing “provocative, challenging and outrageous” plays from around the country” through the lens of LGBT characters and playwrights.”

With “Feeding the Bear” ICS shows it also won’t shy away from presenting material that leaves audience members nodding their head in familiarity, however painful.

 IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Feeding the Bear," a world premiere production of a play by Michael Aman

WHEN: Through July 3.

WHERE: 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors.

For tickets, call (954) 519-2533 or visit www.islandcitystage.org.