Safe House | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Safe-House 75Bluegrass music played as the audience entered the theatre and the effect made you feeling as though you were in hot and sticky Kentucky.

Safe-House 500

In the playbill for Keith Josef Adkins’ play Safe House at The Repertory Theatre of St Louis, the playwright states in an interview that young writers should not shy away from conflict. Adkins’ story of the Pettigrew family, living as free people of color in 1843 Kentucky, does not disappoint on this front.

Addison Pettigrew (Daniel Morgan Stanley) is a shoemaker who opens the play attempting to sell his wares door-to-door and in his spiel, he produces the certificate declaring his freedom. These certificates are an important part of the Pettigrews lives during this time, and their status is the main subject of this show. Two years before the action we are seeing, the Pettigrews took in a runaway slave and were caught by the sheriff and his constable, Bracken (Michael Sean McGuinness). They were put on probation: they were not allowed to leave the county, all other free people of color were banned from the county depriving them of their friends, and they have to leave their doors open at all times to prove they are not harboring fugitives. Addison lives with his brother Frank (Will Cobbs) and their aunt Dorcas (Kelly Taffe). The family dynamic is complicated and tense. Addison dreams of turning his shoe trade into a business run out of their house, while Frank rebels against the many restrictions from the sheriff, and Dorcas is torn between helping Addison and doing what she feels is right by helping slaves escape, sometimes all the way to Liberia. We learn through a letter that Addison has been hiding that Dorcas’ sister is living in Liberia along with a former slave that the Pettigrews helped to escape.

When the show opens, the restrictions and punishments from the sheriff are set to be lifted in a few days time. Addison is ready to marry Clarissa (Raina Houston), a free person of color who was allowed to stay in the county due to her mother’s poor health. He woos her unsuccessfully for a few scenes before we find out that Clarissa and Frank have a secret relationship. Frank jeopardizes the family’s relationship with the sheriff by going for a dip in the creek and it’s through this that the audience understands that Addison is in charge in the Pettigrew household. Addison admonishes Frank for nearly everything he does, and eventually it’s revealed that it was Frank’s mistake that got the family caught two years ago and resulted in the punishments from the sheriff. Aunt Dorcas attempts to calm the tensions between the two brothers, but is often unsuccessful. As Bracken, the sheriff’s employee, comes around again and again to check up on the family, it’s slowly made clear that despite his job, Bracken is a friend to the Pettigrew men and has known Dorcas since they were children.

Roxie (Cassia Thompson), a runaway slave, shows up at the Pettigrew’s house and Frank and Dorcas take her in. They hide her in their rooms and after Bracken leaves, she emerges to surprise Addison, who is obviously furious at his family and the girl who could take away all he has worked to make the sheriff forget. Addison insists she leave. She stays, but Frank and Dorcas successfully make Addison believe she has gone. In the second act, Addison makes a deal with the sheriff, who agrees to let Pettigrew Shoes open in the family’s house. Dorcas insists that Addison had to trade something away, but he does not reveal the price until later in the show when all of the small conflicts come to a head.

At the beginning of the show, Kelly Taffe stumbled through her first few lines, but after that, there was no trouble. Will Cobbs and Daniel Morgan Shelley shined in this show. The raw emotion they show in the face of power was compelling, for Frank the power is Addison’s and for Addison the power is the sheriff’s. In addition to those two, the main source of power is society, government, and the laws against any people of color, free or not. Raina Houston and Cassia Thompson are both students in the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University and their performances were excellent. Clarissa’s tension between pleasing her mother and her feelings for Frank give her character depth, while Roxie’s indignation about her lot in life and determination to change it at any cost was very well played. Michael Sean McGuinness as Bracken had an accent that was spot-on, and his struggles with doing his job while hating himself for not doing what he believed is right made for a very rich character. Finally, the set design (Peter and Margery Spack) was fantastic. A monochromatic house in browns takes up most of the stage, with only a small shed on the side. Bluegrass music played as the audience entered the theatre and the effect made you feeling as though you were in hot and sticky Kentucky. This show was gripping and the race relations themes are as still relevant today. | Emily Scharf

Safe House runs at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through February 8. For ticket info, visit http://www.repstl.org/.

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