A troubled marriage. Vengeance in the Deep-South backwoods. Exit, Pursued by a Bear, written by Lauren Gunderson and making its South Bay debut with City Lights Theater Company, is like a dramatized country song. A Dixie Chicks number, perhaps, or an Appalachian murder ballad.

In rural Georgia, animal-loving veterinary assistant Nan Carter (Sara Renee Morris) wants revenge on her abusive husband Kyle (Max Sorg), a heavy-drinking chauvinist who’s taken to illegally shooting and running down the wildlife of the neighborhood in addition to smacking her around and belittling her dreams. Come Fourth of July, she’s finally had enough. Enter bears.

With Kyle duct taped to his recliner, Nan forces him to review key moments of their relationship and plans, ultimately, to leave him drizzled in honey and surrounded by venison as bait for the local black bear population.

Nan is not the only one Kyle has crossed. She finds two dedicated accomplices in her longtime best-friend Simon (Jacob Marker) and her new pal, Sweetheart (Laura Espino), a stripper and aspiring thespian. Both are steadfast in their support.

The inspiration and title of Exit, Pursued by a Bear comes from one of the most famous stage directions in the history of theatre—from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Because Nan and Sweetheart share a love of The Bard, they decide to “get classical” with their revenge scheme, right down to the ursine ending. To maximize the drama, Nan and Sweetheart decide to show Kyle the error of his ways by acting out scenes of him at his nastiest, with Sweetheart alternating between playing the roles of Kyle and Nan.

Much of Exit relies on this clever theater-within-theater construction, which reaches its deepest level when the actors—and even the script, itself—break the fourth wall. The characters address the audience directly and humorous stage directions are projected above the stage, clarifying the timeline and adding illuminating details. Kudos to City Lights technical director Ron Gasparinetti and lighting designer Nick Kumamoto for making the timeline switches and explanatory projections effective and entertaining.

Gunderson’s script is often funny but just as often heavy-handed. The Independence Day fireworks, which erupt as Nan makes her play, as it were, for freedom are an obvious touch.

Kyle and Simon’s characters both come across as cliche—the former as a redneck and good-ole-boy, the latter as the flamboyantly gay best buddy. Though the roles are stereotypical, Marker makes the most of his campy Simon, drawing laughs and cheers throughout; and Sorg does a good job mixing Kyle’s menace with his charm. Morris’ Nan is a bit more interesting as an odd-duck heroine who idolizes—and shares a last name with—fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter. Espino’s cat-loving Sweetheart is loveably loopy in her supporting role. And while the script is heavily peppered with “y’alls,” only Sorg commits to the regional accent. Marker and Espino fade in and out of their Southern drawls while Morris noticeably doesn’t bother with one at all.

The greatest strengths of Exit lie in its preposterous premise and the play-within-a-play layers, especially when switching back and forth from present to flashback in scenes of Kyle and Nan reliving the early days of their courtship. Kyle is desperate to prove to Nan — and the audience — that he’s not such a bad guy after all, and his aw-shucks allure almost wears her  (and us) down before we’re reminded of his malevolent side. He kills animals for fun; he hits and insults his wife; there’s really no charming his way out of that, no matter how much he swears to change. To paraphrase Nan, you shouldn’t need bears to be nice.

Ultimately, the play’s tone is a bit uneven, as it’s mainly a farce but with the very unfunny issue of domestic violence at the core. Dark comedies make laughing matters of serious topics, but in this case the balance struck between humor and pathos isn’t quite right, with the “you go, girl” sentiment wiping away the more poignant moments too easily and the comedy not quite striking deeply enough. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting and fizzy bit of meta-tragi-comedy.

Exit is actually one of a trilogy of Shakespeare-inspired plays by Gunderson and, even though I didn’t love it as wholeheartedly as some of my fellow audience members seemed to, I’d certainly be interested to see more of her work in the future. City Lights’ production is a Bear worth pursuing.

Exit, Persued by Bear
Thru June 14
City Lights Theater Company