‘Safe House’ places familial conflicts, stunning performances at hearth of pre-Civil War drama

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Using only black and white paint, “Safe House” at Aurora Theatre Company paints a stark picture of pre-Civil War America.

The play tells the story of the Pedigrew family, a free family of color living in 1843 Kentucky. The brothers — the domineering and idealistic Addison (an endearingly charismatic David Everett Moore) and the fiery and passionate Frank (a phenomenal Lance Gardner) — live with their Aunt Dorcas (a strong, grounded Dawn L. Troupe) and are one of the last remaining free families of color in the town, after the rest were forced to leave as part of a two-year penalty for the Pedigrew’s harboring of runaway slaves. While the Pedigrews have a long history of aiding fugitives, life under the constant scrutiny of the town’s sheriff transforms their sense of purpose to one of self-preservation. However, they find it harder to turn away from their past than they expected.

When their two years of punishment come to an end, Addison — the county’s finest shoemaker — hopes to open a Pedigrew shoe business, but he is soon forced to choose between his grand vision and protecting Roxie (Jamella Cross), a frightened and spirited runaway being hidden by Frank and Dorcas. The unfolding narrative challenges, in unexpected ways, the true meaning of freedom, yet falls short of effectively tackling other important historical issues — sexism as principal among them.

The play’s beating heart lies in the tumultuous dynamic between the two brothers. Addison believes firmly in stability, hard work and cautious subservience, while Frank acts on impulse, sticking to his strong moral instincts with little regard for the consequences. Every scene they share is palpably tense, injecting a much-needed energy into a show that has a tendency to drag in pacing, especially in the first act where much of the more mundane groundwork is being laid. When an unforgettable jaw-dropping reveal is made in the beginning of the second act, Addison and Frank’s differing definitions of freedom come into full clash; it is the show’s rawest, most climactic moment, and Moore and Gardner navigate it masterfully.

“Safe House” also dives into a fascinating discussion of the theory behind the Back-to-Africa movement of the 19th century — when African Americans,  both free and runaway slaves, were motivated to leave the United States and return to the countries of their respective ancestors, in particular, from Liberia. The play uses Dorcas and Frank to romanticize Liberia — they’ve heard that former U.S. slaves have total autonomy and can live fulfilling, meaningful lives — but within this glorified system, African Americans are enslaving native Africans, depriving them of the very freedoms they sought. It is a confrontational take on traditional presentations of sovereignty and self-determination, and that is where “Safe House” reaches its most thoughtful.

Unfortunately, not every aspect of “Safe House” gets this same provocative treatment. Women are repeatedly underserved in the story; writer Keith Josef Adkins somewhat carelessly adds a fleeting love triangle between Addison, Frank and their neighbor Clarissa (Dezi Solèy) that does little to forward the plot save for giving the brothers another object to argue over. Troupe’s Dorcas, whose steady courage is the foundation on which the most intense scenes are built, is quite literally punished in the ending (which was rather unfulfilling) for only doing the right thing. Dorcas suffers some of the greatest losses in the show and yet is given the least opportunity out of any character to truly wrestle with her tribulations. Even Jamella Cross’ Roxie, a promising bullet of nuanced hysteria, is ushered off almost as quickly as she is introduced.

Nevertheless, the dynamite performances from the actors outweigh most of the script’s basic flaws, making this a solid directorial debut for Bay Area actor L. Peter Callender. Other more visual and technical achievements also add a level of refinement that increases the emotional gravitas of the work. The exquisite costuming not only adheres impeccably to the period but also is an essential vehicle for further contrast between the Pedigrew brothers. Several creative lighting choices determine the mood for many a scene, and the set itself is, while tastefully simple, incredibly illuminating.

Overall, there are enough emotional gems and delightful visuals that make the performance worth a ticket.

“Safe House” will continue to run at Aurora Theatre Company through Dec. 4.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].

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