“The Arkansaw Bear” at Towngate Explores Meaning of Life & Death

I always do my homework before a blogging assignment. But I didn’t, this time. As a result, when I sat down to watch a rehearsal of “The Arkansaw Bear” at Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theater, the subject matter surprised me. To that end, when you attend the performance, it’s important to understand what you’ll be seeing and why it will be a worthwhile event for your family.

In the opening scene, women are crying and hugging one another. Tish, a little girl, wants to know why. Her mother and aunt choke back sobs. Her grandfather is going to die, they tell her, and nothing can be done about it.

(Here I was taken aback. This is pretty heavy for children’s theater, I thought to myself.)

Tish’s grandfather isn’t the only dying character. Tish asks a wishing star to help her make sense of her grief. The star, in response, introduces Tish to a dancing bear and a mime. Once a famous circus performer, the bear is now old, and he, too, is facing the end of his life.

(Good grief, I thought at this point. Literally.)

“The Arkansaw Bear” is a one-act play about death. For kids.

Before you say, “I’m not taking my child to a play where the grandfather and the teddy bear die,” consider for a moment how we struggle with death as parents and as a society. It’s difficult for us to talk about, most of all with young kids. We naturally avoid subjects that upset us, and children’s questions are rarely the kind we can answer with any certainty. Death is not easy to define. Moreover, children understand the concept differently at different ages.

Studies show that kids under four don’t yet understand death’s irreversibility. Kids under six cannot comprehend that the dead no longer function as the living do (e.g. they cannot dream, they cannot feel pain). Children under ten think of death as something that only happens to the very old or to “other people.” One study indicated that children do not truly grasp the finality of death until their 12th birthday.

How do we give kids the tools they need to understand the death of a loved one?

When it comes to children, sometimes the concept is best expressed in story form. To that end, the playwright, Aurand Harris, wrote “The Arkansaw Bear” to help children understand this difficult concept. The play makes gentle use of metaphor. Life, for the Arkansaw Bear, was represented by the circus and his performances. Death is personified as a Ringmaster who comes to lead the bear home to the Great Center Ring. There’s music and dancing, funny hats and jokes. The Ringmaster dresses like a ringmaster, and there are no frightening costumes or imagery.

At first, the bear hides from the Ringmaster, but as the play goes on, he begins to accept that his time has come to an end. The question then arises as to what to do with his last hours?

Tish tells the Arkansaw Bear that her grandfather calls her “a chip off the old block.” She is a part of him that will live on after his death, and she encourages the bear to teach someone else his famous dances. In so doing, the bear realizes that a part of him will continue on.

“After I’ve taken my last bow, I’ll be a part of what went before and I’ll be a part of what is yet to come,” the Arkansaw Bear says. He finds Little Bear and spends the last hours of his life teaching the young cub his dances. They dance with joy and laughter, and Little Bear tells Tish to give herself to the living.

When the Ringmaster finally comes for the Arkansaw Bear, there are no tears. The bear, pleased to have passed on his legacy, takes the Ringmaster’s hand and waves goodbye to Tish and the Mime and Little Bear. When Tish returns home to learn her grandfather has died, she tells her mother that she is his legacy, a footprint he’s left behind, and that she wants to give herself to the living.

The Play Conveys its Message in a Thoughtful Way

Elizabeth Jeffers is one of the adults in the production. She plays Tish’s mom, and she’s a parent, too. I asked her for her thoughts, both as an actor and a mother.

“My grandmother came to live with us for her last year of life,” she told me. “My daughter was 2-3 during that year. She knew Granny was sick, and then she knew [Granny] died. I tried to relate it to her on an age-appropriate level and hoped the concept of death made sense. It turns out that she processed death but had a fear that my mother (her grandmother) would die soon. Reassurance on that was what she needed to finish processing death at a toddler understanding.”

Jeffers is pleased to be a part of the production, and she’s satisfied with the way it conveys its intended message to young people.

“‘Arkansaw Bear’ aims for a slightly older audience,” she said. “I like that it shows the reality and grief of adults struggling to deal with the death of a loved one, juxtaposed with a child who is struggling just the same. Tish figures out that by carrying on her grandpa’s legacy she is continuing to carry him with her. I think it is very reassuring to all ages to think that our own legacy will continue on after we are gone and to realize that we carry the memories of those who’ve died.”

The Play Opens the Door to Discussion at Home

“The Arkansaw Bear” probably isn’t appropriate for very young children. But for elementary school kids, particularly those who have faced the loss of a loved one, the play will not only provide comfort in a thoughtful, non-threatening way, but it may also open the door for an easier discussion at home. The cast and crew have worked hard to make it a great show.

Get Tickets

“The Arkansaw Bear” will be staged at 7pm Friday, February 2, 3 pm Saturday, February 3 and 3pm Sunday, February 4. Then, again at 7pm Friday, February 9 and 3pm Saturday, February 10. You can purchase tickets online, by calling 304-242-7700 or at the door.