Theater Review - Lauren Gunderson is a master of science

Exit, Pursued By a Bear establishes Gunderson as rising national talent

As a young high school student in Decatur with literary ambitions, Lauren Gunderson aspired to see her work performed on stage by Atlanta's hippest theater companies. "I thought, if Synchronicity ever does one of my plays, I'll know that I've made it."

With Synchronicity's current world premiere production of Gunderson's Exit, Pursued By a Bear, one of the 29-year-old playwright's dreams has come true — and then some. Synchronicity is but one of three national theaters to present the debut of Bear, which locates a feminist revenge comedy in the Appalachian Mountains. San Francisco's Crowded Fire will stage the play this summer, and Seattle's ArtsWest will mount a production this fall. Bear's bi-coastal rollout reflects Gunderson's growth from precocious Atlanta talent to rising national playwright.

As a teenager, Gunderson wrote the comedy Parts They Call Deep, about three generations of Southern women traveling in a mobile home. The play won Essential Theatre's Playwriting Award in 2001, which Gunderson won a second time in 2004. Parts went on to have a monthlong production at Off-Broadway's Cherry Lane Theatre while Gunderson was still an undergrad at Emory.

The laws of thermodynamics or the heat-death of the universe aren't typical subjects for plays, but Gunderson has established a national reputation over the last decade for her lively science-based plays. Gunderson emphasizes the personalities behind the equations. Her characters have included Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci and lesser-known figures such as Enlightenment-era Frenchwoman Emilie Du Châtelet.

"I think I write about scientists more than I write about science. You could say that science is the landscape and ether of the plays, but the hearts and dreams of the scientists are what we're really watching," she says.

Gunderson now lives in San Francisco, a move that came about after preparing a play there for the Marin Theatre Company thanks to a connection to former Actor's Express artistic director Jasson Minadakis. "Omigod, these are my people," she says of being near Silicon Valley. "There's scientists everywhere you look, and they like new things, innovative things. It's like Geek Central."

Gunderson named the current play for the most famous stage direction in history — William Shakespeare followed Antigonus' final lines in The Winter's Tale with the words "Exit, pursued by a bear." For Bear, Gunderson says she gave herself permission to write about the subjects like the South and domestic violence without censoring her sense of humor.

Whether writing about defiant Southern belles or unsung scientific researchers, Gunderson finds that the theme of legacy unifies her plays. "What does your life mean? What do you leave behind? What's the point? I think that's the biggest question out there, and I'll just write about it again and again," she says. If she keeps up at the rate she's going, she'll leave behind a cerebral yet passionate body of work that makes hard science and big ideas look easy.

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