There were three things going against "Come to Me, Leopards" when I walked into Cyrano's Playhouse Thursday night.
First, I don't care about running. Second, I avoid the kind of community theater that looks like the players are going to spend a lot of time talking about feelings and not doing much else. And, finally, it was Halloween, and I was missing a party.
In spite of all this, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Not without some reservations — I still resist the idea that a group of adult women would earnestly, repeatedly refer to themselves as "leopards" and deliver lines like "Leopards never say they're sorry." But I got past it, because there are a lot of authentically funny, gross and emotionally messy moments to enjoy in this new play by Arlitia Jones.
The play's central figure is Sydney Witherspoon (Morgan Mitchell), a charismatic and brilliant running coach who has worked out her own taxonomy for the human race: people who run are leopards (the world's fastest runners are cheetahs), and then there are meerkats, elephants and giraffes, all the way down to moss (people who do nothing but sit on the couch).
Sydney assembles a team of three other "leopards" to accompany her to a marathon in Italy. There is fearful bank employee Jolianne (Jill Sowerwine), competitive military enlistee Annia (Danielle Rabinovitch) and the unhappily married Evelyn (Tamar Shai). Together, the four women practice Italian and listen to opera while they train for the marathon (in one of many witty touches, when the lights come up, the four women enter performing lunges and squats with the slow deliberation of ballerinas to the music of a Verdi aria).
What brings them together is athleticism, but this is not simply a story about the power of sports and teamwork to overcome personal challenges. It is also a mystery; when the play begins, we learn it's been a year since Sydney went running alone and disappeared, and the three remaining women are training in her absence.
What happened to Sydney is a mystery looming over both present-day discussions and scenes from the past. But the question at the heart of the play is not what became of her, but what set her off in the first place.
What was she running from? A detective (Shelly Wozniak) inevitably inquires.
"We're not running away. We're running toward. Sydney says that," replies Jolianne.
The truth was both, it seems. The women in "Leopards" run for many reasons, none of which seem to be simple cardiovascular exercise. They run because their loved ones are dying; they run because their home lives are unhappy; they run because they like to go fast. They run because it's when they feel alive, Jolianne says; "you're either a person who gets it or you're not."
There isn't a lot of theater out there that shows what unabashed jocks women can be. For almost every mention of a personal drama, there are digressions about chafing, blackened toenails and body odor. While it's a little hard to showcase running on a stage the size of Cyrano's, some creative direction from Jayne Wenger (mostly involving dashing onto or off stage, in addition to an impressive catalogue of stretches and plyometric exercises) keeps things dynamic. Carrie Yanagawa's forested set stays in the background but for one beautifully lit night scene, and is cleverly designed to give the leopards a place to disappear into.
Jones writes in her play notes that "Leopards" was inspired by the abduction and murder of Anchorage barista Samantha Koenig in 2012. "Leopards" doesn't tell Koenig's story, but the murder brought to Jones' mind that "Statistics don't lie. Women in Alaska are vulnerable." Still, women choose to run, and run alone: despite icy footing, bears, cars coming close to running them over, bad men. The women of "Leopards" may feel most powerful when they run, but that doesn't mean they aren't also putting themselves at risk.
This is the premiere of "Leopards," and in the program Jones notes that the production had less time for rehearsal than usual. Nevertheless, the easy rapport between the principal actresses was convincing (the four worked together on "A Gulag Mouse," which Jones directed last year). Mitchell's Sydney has the upbeat, slightly manic charisma you encounter sometimes on the trails or at Skinny Raven (her fictional employer), and it was easy to see how three ordinary women could rally around her to commit to an extraordinary goal.
If the play ends on a somewhat tinny note of girl power, it's mostly because the messy parts – the arguing, joking, sad and "grodie" parts — are so satisfying. You probably know someone like one of these characters — a person in your life who doesn't just enjoy outdoor activity but craves it, despite injury or inclement weather. A person who gets an intense, glassy look when recounting how they had the most amazing run of their life the other day. Even if you don't, this play is a fascinating look into what keeps them running.
Reach Victoria Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org and 257-4556.
Come to Me, Leopards
Showing now until Nov. 17
3 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 17
Cyrano's Playhouse, 413 D St.
Tickets are $16.50-$18.50 at centertix.net