Safe in Hell
Also see Sharon's review of Matt & Ben
The starting point for any discussion of Amy Freed’s new play, Safe in Hell has got to be The Crucible. Because Freed’s world premiere work covers much of the same ground - a Salem witch trial, in which the accusers are led by a girl named Abigail, who had been introduced to some harmless occult rituals by a slave, Tituba. And, just as Arthur Miller’s classic wasn’t really about Salem, Freed’s play also has a subtext of modern political commentary.
The most obvious difference between Safe in Hell and The Crucible is that Safe in Hell is a comedy. As well it should be. To modern, cynical eyes, the Salem witch trials were a farce; it takes very little effort for Freed to write them that way. Picture Tituba in court, being faced with the choice of confessing (and being flogged) or not confessing (and being hung) - it only takes a wry aside about that “not being much of a choice” to set the audience laughing as she starts naming names.
But Safe in Hell doesn’t only find its humor in the situation, it also finds it in Freed’s writing. Freed is skilled at writing the somewhat archaic dialogue spoken by 17th Century Puritans, but she peppers that language with modern colloquialisms to comic effect. So, a fire and brimstone sermon is punctuated with, “But seriously, folks.” There is a danger that these little jokes might cease to be funny - it is something of a recurring gag - but Freed doesn’t overuse it, and it ends up getting at least a chuckle nearly every time. (The one place where the comedy in the script gets out of hand is when a trio of women are played so stupidly they’re nearly drooling. Director David Emmes could probably have the actresses pick up their characters’ IQ by a few dozen points without harming the script.)
Don’t let the comedy fool you, though; there’s also something very serious going on in Safe in Hell. Rather than focusing on the innocent man wrongly condemned, Freed turns her attention to the Reverend who did the condemning, Cotton Mather. Although Cotton was a Reverend, he was not, in fact, one of the “elect,” those lucky few the Puritans believed had been selected by God for His divine gift of grace. (In a memorable scene in which Cotton tries to convince his father that God had indeed touched him, he suggests that he feels “a pitying, condescending, smirky sort of love for my fellow man.”) But Cotton truly wanted to be one of the elect, both for the benefits it brought and to live up to his family name.
For Cotton was the son of Increase Mather, a famous Reverend who was touched by God not just once, but twice. Not only was Increase Mather well-respected, but Cotton was the last in a long line of Mathers, and he felt the weight of history pressing down on him, calling on him to be worthy of the family name. And when Increase is taken ill, right as Abigail starts making a fuss about witches, Cotton sees his assignment to Salem as his last chance to make his mark. If you’re looking for political commentary, you need look no further than the story of a man so desperate to live up to his father’s reputation, he is willing to see devils where they do not exist.
The cast solidly works both the farce and the subtext. Robert Sella refuses to play Cotton as one-dimensional. It is surely possible to play Cotton as simply a man who turns evil when his father withholds the approval he so desperately seeks, but Sella doesn’t do that. Instead, he plays Cotton with a sort of blinders on - Sella’s Cotton always means well and really believes he’s doing the right thing. Graeme Malcolm strikes the right balance between Increase’s holier-than-everyone self-satisfaction and his good common sense. Simon Billig is delightfully goofy as a well-meaning Reverend who wants to preach in the wilderness and lead his congregation in sing-a-longs. And Tracey A. Leigh makes every one of Tituba’s smart-mouthed comments hit.
Safe in Hell is the sort of play that keeps you amused while you’re watching it, and makes you think once it’s over.
Safe in Hell runs at South Coast Repertory through May 9, 2004. For information, see www.scr.org.
South Coast Repertory -- David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director -- presents the world premiere of Safe in Hell by Amy Freed. Scenic Design Ralph Funicello; Costume Design Nephelie Andonyadis; Lighting Design Peter Maradudin; Sound Design David Budries; Choreographer Sylvia C. Turner; Dramaturgs Jennifer Kiger/Jerry Patch; Production Manager Jeff Gifford; Stage Manager Randall K. Lum. Directed by David Emmes.