"Safe in Hell"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
Ah, the lure of the devil! What attractions he offers—cavorting in the woods in wild orgies. How much more appealing—to preachers and congregants alike--than the stern bleak message of Calvinism. Thus, Amy Freed’s play “Safe in Hell” is drawn back to that time when witches were abroad in Salem.
Freed, whose new play is now on stage at Yale Rep, uses those infamous witch trials much as Arthur Miller did in “The Crucible.” Each, in fact, hammers home a political message, drawing parallels to then and now. But “The Crucible,” arguably Miller’s finest play, gets across its clear-cut message in sharp, wonderfully controlled drama. He tells us that the McCarthy trials of the 1950’s, as with those of the earlier era, are cruel, insane and totally out of hand. There are villains and heroes in Miller’s play, each carefully delineated.
“Safe in Hell,” on the other hand, falters with more a complicated message and more complex characters. Freed is concerned with a father/son relationship—that of Increase and Cotton Mather, the two eminent Puritan preachers of the time, whom she clearly relates to the Bushes, father and son. Increase, the father in this drama, is seen as the intellectual with a broader philosophical view of his religion, while Cotton is the inept son, forever striving to measure up to his father. Once Cotton gains power, he runs with it, wreaking havoc in his path.
Why does this play lose its way in the telling? Certainly not in the production, which is sharply, imaginatively staged by Mark Wing-Davey. Certainly not the performances, both individually and in ensemble. Within the fine cast are two stand-out: performances: Adam Dannheisser, as the naïve goofy preacher with a perpetual smile painted on his face, and Myra Lucretia Taylor as the indomitable slave Tituba who never misses a beat or makes a wrong move.
Nor does the difficulty lie in the staging, which is superb, with Lleiko Fuseya’s highly imaginative, but minimalist, set, and Gina Scherr’s strong, dramatic lighting. Masked villagers framed in doorways, ancestral portraits looming overhead, hanged men silhouetted against the light—all provide memorable visual moments.
The difficulty lies not in the play’s execution, but in its text. Freed’s ambitious efforts never quite jell, nor does she find a consistent tone to “Safe in Hell,” which wavers between the comic, the dramatic, and the preachy. There are good ideas here in this heady mixture, but they are yet to turn into one clear dramatic statement.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 19, 2005