Safety First

17. February, 2010 Theater 1 comment

Safe House opens with a knife to the throat, a boy in a wheelchair threatening his mom in the woods. “Is this the end? Say yes,” he says, and although of course it’s only the beginning you can see immediately that its also the end. From there we can only go back to see how we got there.

Cole Alexander Smith and Amy Resnick. Photo by Nina Ball

In the most immediate sense, how we got there is this: A man lost in the woods gets caught in a pit trap set by some crazy survivalists, who happen to be the wife and kids that he thought died when his house blew up. The kids think he’s long dead too—their mom told them he was killed by terrorists in the war that’s still going on out there in the outside world. This isn’t some apocalyptic future, however.  This is right now, and apocalypse is a state of mind.

Safe House is a new play by Geetha Reddy, a longtime member of the writing pool at PlayGround, which commissioned this piece. This is Reddy’s first full production as sole author of a full-length work, after last fall’s Blastosphere!that she coauthored with PlayGround colleague Aaron Loeb for Central Works. It’s also the inaugural production of the Sandbox, SF Playhouse’s new series of spare productions of world premieres on the company’s second stage, both of which this season are by local authors.

It’s given a particularly dynamic staging here by director Nancy Carlin, and the ensemble acting from the cast of four is superb. Cole Alexander Smith commands (and needs) attention as July, a wheelchair-bound teenager with special needs and an obsession with all things grisly and violent. Between scenes he also steps up as a gruff ranger giving a survival lecture to the audience—a character who seems to be July’s self-image or simply a figment of his imagination. Marissa Keltie has a keen intensity as his twin sister June, both as crossbow-wielding teen hardass and as grade school smartass.

Amy Resnick is a piece of work as Em, the mom who tackles the problem of protecting the children with such single-mindedness that she loses all perspective. There’s a beautifully guileless nonchalance to her teaching the children weapons training and elaborate survival scenarios that makes you really believe she can’t conceive why anyone would have a problem with this. Brian Herndon (whom I’ve known since high school, by way of full disclosure) has great bewildered groundedness as Marshall, the father who was always away on business while his family went its own way off the deep end without him.

The fractured structure of the piece is remarkably effective, with the back story gradually unfolding in flashbacks until it becomes a poignant if puzzling connect-the-dots of how things came to this pass, with the many scene changes captured in Ariella Granett’s spare set by projections of the forest, the cabin, and the old family home. The puzzling part has more to do with the tone than the plot, because the scenario is so out of proportion that it comes off as satire without being particularly comic—a satirical melodrama, essentially, or a black comedy so dark that it’s not really a comedy. It practically leaves no stone unturned in creating a sense of impending doom through references to 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Unabomber, the Loma Prieta quake, even Hale-Bopp and the Heaven’s Gate suicides. The topic certainly is clear enough, even if it’s ultimately hard to know what to take from the play. But it’s a hell of a ride getting there, a high-voltage production that kicks off the theater’s new series with a bang.

Safe House
Through March 6
SF Playhouse Second Stage
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #19 of 2010, attended February 13.

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  1. 2 / 17 / 2010 9:20 am

    I did several readings of this play for Playground. I was June. It is “a hell of a ride”. Can’t wait to see it. Thanks for the article.





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