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Safe House
by Keith Josef Adkins
Directed by Melissa Maxwell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 23, 2015

Will Cobbs, Kelly Taffe, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Michael Sean McGuinness Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Will Cobbs, Kelly Taffe, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Michael Sean McGuinness
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

History is being brought to life with vibrancy and much emotion and meaning in the Rep Studio’s current production of Safe House. Recounting injustices, hardships, and racial tensions in 1840’s Kentucky, this impeccably staged and cast production highlights issues that are historical but still relevant today. It’s an emotional, thoughtful and challenging exploration of the hopes and dreams of one family and of the very concept of freedom itself.

The story follows the Pedigrew family, free people of color living in a small Kentucky town 20 years before the Civil War.  While they live in a slave state, the Pedigrews have been free born for generations, and they have the certificates to prove it, which they must carry with them at all times.  The central figures are two very different brothers–Addison (Daniel Morgan Shelley), an itinerant cobbler who dreams of having his own shoe shop; and Frank (Will Cobbs), who bristles against his brother’s conciliatory ways and the restrictions imposed upon their family as a result of helping runaway slaves escape two years earlier.  As a punishment, the brothers and their Aunt Dorcas (Kelly Taffe) are forced to follow a curfew, stay out of the local creek (in which Frank likes to swim), and keep all the doors of their cabin open at all times.  These regulations are enforced by local deputy Bracken (Michael Sean McGuinness), a white man who grew up with Dorcas and the brothers’ parents, and seems conflicted as to where his loyalties lie. The upwardly mobile Addison, who has dreams of making shoes for the governor and gaining security for his family as a result of working for wealthy white customers, will stop at nothing to achieve his dream, while Dorcas and Frank still secretly desire to keep helping the escaped slaves get out of Kentrucky and, eventually, out of the country to settle in Liberia.  Addison also has designs on marrying his neighbor Clarissa (Raina Houston), apparently whether she likes it or not, since she actually prefers Frank.  With the two year period of punishment almost over, Addison relishes his plans for the shoe shop and prepares to visit the sheriff and ask for restoration of the family’s privileges, while a new runaway slave, Roxie (Cassia Thompson) arrives and presents the family with the dilemma of whether or not to help her or turn her in and stay in the good graces of the sheriff.

There are many more complications in the story throughout the rest of the play, with the major themes being freedom and loyalty.  Even though the family is technically free born, their rights are restricted in that they need to keep their papers with them and they are basically at the mercy of the sheriff.  For Addison, the answer to this problem is to give the authorities what they want, stay out of trouble and build his business. For Frank, freedom means not having to be told what to do. Dorcas holds to the ideals of freedom detailed in the letters from her relatives who’ve settled in Liberia, which becomes the symbol for her of a place of ultimate freedom. There’s also Clarissa, whose sense of freedom is restricted by expectations of when and who she will marry; and Roxie, who is fiercely determined to escape any and all forms of bondage. Addison’s dilemma, which forces him to choose between his own dreams and those of his brother, forms the central conflict of the play, which asks the question of whether a person is really free if his “freedom” depends on staying in the good graces of those in power. It also poses the dilemma of exactly how high a price a person would be willing to pay to attain their own personal goals, and asks whether or not that price is worth paying.

The play takes these concepts and brings them to life with richly drawn characters and strong performances. It’s a top-notch cast all around, with a great deal of emotion, energy and ensemble chemistry. As Addison, Shelley is full of ambition and bravado, with a single-minded focus on his goals. He brings depth and dimension to a somewhat difficult character. As the restless, increasingly determined Frank, Cobbs is dynamic and sympathetic.  His scenes with Shelley are full of intense conflict and complex emotion. As Dorcas, Taffe is a picture of wearied strength, wisdom, and hope against hope.  There are also strong performances from McGuinness as the initially easygoing but inwardly tormented Bracken, Houston as the conflicted Clarissa, and Thompson as the confrontational, fiercely determined Roxie. There are no weak links here, and every cast member contributes to the overall growing emotion and drama of the production as the intensity and suspense builds toward the story’s conclusion.

The set by Margery and Peter Spack effectively recreates an 1800’s wooden cabin, with a subdued color scheme and period details such as a cast-iron stove and a cluttered, barrel-filled shed. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes are meticulously authentic, setting the tone of the 1840’s in clear detail. The period-styled music by Scott O’Brien also contributes to the overall 1800’s Southern setting.

This is a show about freedom and what it means, and the lengths people will go to achieve it.  It’s also a reminder of this country’s less-than-savory past and a reminder that many of these issues are still being dealt with today.  With a dynamic cast and a sense of immediacy that brings this historical tale to the present with strong impact, Safe House is a production not to be missed.

Will Cobbs, Daniel Morgan Shelley Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Will Cobbs, Daniel Morgan Shelley
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

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