How often do people yell in real life? In the past six months, I can only think of about two conversations that have resulted in raised voices that I personally participated in. Keith Josef Adkins, however, would have you believe that the natural colloquy of human beings is loud and emotional. At least, that’s how he presents his characters in his 2014 slavery drama Safe House, a loud and exasperatingly overwrought melodrama that hides its interesting sociopolitical themes in a thick coating of syrupy sentiment.
The time is 1843, the place is rural Kentucky. Focusing on a free black family, the play begins when their family has their social restrictions, placed on them by the town for helping free slaves by way of the underground railroad, lifted after two years. Determined to do something with their newly free lives, Addison, the young patriarch of the family, seeks to turn his house into a cobbler’s store, a practice that he has previously had to conduct by going door to door. Addison’s temperamental (well, whiny, actually) younger brother Frank, however, wants to make his own way in the world and tensions arise when it is revealed that a nearby slave has run away and the family is suspected to be hiding her for escape to Liberia. There’s also a steamy side-plot involving Clarissa, the local beauty whom both brothers lust after, but who professes love for only one of the two.
That’s a heavily melodramatic setup, but it might be an interesting way to look at slavery and class in 19th century southern America as removed from a discussion on race if written with a gentle hand. Safe House, however, continues to raise the stakes always threatening to collapse in on itself, finally doing so in an 11-o’clock twist that you’ll be able to see coming from miles away and is so overdramatic as to border on self-parody. But Safe House insists upon itself at every twist and turn, and you’ll be thrown off the ride far before the second act ends. It doesn’t help that Adkins has attempted to write this drama in a poetic style, with characters sounding as self-consciously flowery as those in a John Steinbeck novel. Playwrights like August Wilson and Horton Foote have become revered by reveling in the poetry of conversation, but Adkins, much like John Steinbeck, has very little ear for the metrical and his dialogue is as purple as a blood clot and as bogus as a home-printed dollar.
Aurora Theatre’s production is as overworked as the play, serving up a half-dozen hammy performances that would feel strained in a grand opera house, but in Aurora Theatre’s 150-seat thrust stage feel like the theatrical equivalent of waterboarding. Not only are the performances far too intense, but many of the actors lack variety in their delivery and some even look downright uncomfortable being onstage.
This was my first visit to Aurora, which has a reputation as one of the best theaters in the area. That may be true, but Safe House is a dud either way. Thankfully, the next play opening at Aurora is Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, one of the finest comedies of the 20th century. I certainly hope they can give theatergoers the evening they deserve, but this one isn’t it.
Safe House runs in Berkeley at the Aurora Theatre through December 4th. Tickets and information available here.