Playwright Gunderson returns to Southern roots

Decatur native tackles topic of domestic abuse in new work

“Exit, pursued by a bear,” is recognized by Shakespeare buffs as one of literature’s most famous stage directions.

But Lauren Gunderson’s idea for a play by the same name had nothing to do with the bard’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

The title might be ancient, but Gunderson’s theme, sadly, is timeless.

Set in the North Georgia mountains, the play depicts a domestic violence situation with myriad references to Jimmy Carter, Jefferson Starship, cheerleaders and a (hopefully) hungry bear.

That Gunderson, a Decatur native living in San Francisco, manages to puncture such a serious topic with appropriate humor is testament to her astute and compassionate writing.

“Bear,” produced by Synchronicity Theatre, is in the midst of its rolling world premiere and is playing at 7 Stages Mainstage Theatre this month. This summer, it heads to theaters in San Francisco and Seattle.

It’s another superlative for the 29-year-old Gunderson, whose usual fascination with science history has been detailed in her plays “Leap” (about Isaac Newton), which premiered at Theatre Emory in 2004; “Emilie: Le Marquise Du Chatelet Defends Her Tonight,” which premiered at the South Coast Repertory in 2009 and is now published by Samuel French; and “Fire Work,” which had a reading last month as part of the Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project.

Gunderson, an Emory alum, said that for several years, while she attended graduate school at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, she kept the title for “Bear” in her back pocket, realizing the inherent hilarity of it.

It was during a month-long O’Neill workshop in Connecticut that she started writing, pouring out “10 pages of this thing that was completely ridiculous and strange but had a natural voice,” Gunderson said.

She put “Bear” on a shelf until she moved to San Francisco about a year and a half ago. After its completion, Amy Mueller, artistic director for the city’s Playwrights Foundation, gave Gunderson a reading.

“People loved it and connected to the tone really well,” Gunderson said. “I think it was the combination of it being about something important, but trying to make it funny and poignant.”

Shortly afterward, across the county, Rachel May, the producing artistic director of Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre, read Gunderson’s latest work as part of the She Writes national new play competition for female playwrights.

“I was completely hooked,” said May, who directs “Bear.” “Good comedies are hard to find and this one embraces its wild energy with abandon. More importantly though, is the way that it packs a pretty strong wallop emotionally as it delves into an abusive relationship — it is smart. And an anthem for women ‘who swallow panic every day.’ ”

Gunderson, who considers Decatur home though her family lives in Memphis, said her inspiration was to examine more closely the contradictions and hypocrisies toward women that she experienced while growing up.

“It was always very apparent to me that there was a strange balance in America between the obsession with purity and ‘American family values’ and the sexually obsessed who used women as a source of entertainment,” she said. “I think we all have more friends than we know who have been in [abusive] situations, whether physical or emotional.”

For her next acts, Gunderson is leaning to the lighter side of life.

She’s writing a science-themed children’s show — “The Space Capades of Dr. Wonderful and her Dog” — for the Kennedy Center’s Performances for Young Audiences, and is also working with Harry Connick Jr. on his Christmas musical, “The Happy Elf.”

But first, “Bear” might undergo some tweaks.

After its Atlanta run, the play moves to Playfest at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater for readings and workshops. There, Gunderson plans to use her knowledge from the Atlanta shows to massage the play before its San Francisco debut.

But don’t expect any of those references to Atlanta traffic or Carter’s wisdom to be excised.

“It’s always been a Southern story,” Gunderson said. “For the West Coast, it was kind of a fascinating world.”


“Exit, Pursued by a Bear”

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Through March 27. $18-$23. 7 Stages Mainstage Theatre, 1105 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-484-8636,