From my living room, just as I was sitting down to write this review, I heard the familiar little instrumental theme song that announced that the Antique Roadshow was coming on. It’s a fun program to watch, especially when they have a compilation show like this one. It’s going on in the background. Isn’t it great when someone discovers a rare and precious thing in some out-of-the-way spot? It could be an ancient Indian blanket or a piece of Mayan pottery, an early Mickey Mouse or a famous ballplayer’s minor league uniform; such things are waiting to be found if we’re willing to stray off the beaten path.
In this case, it’s a play. Safe Home is not an antique, it’s a new work by first-time playwright Sean Cullen. But it’s new play about old things: family, home, fathers, mothers, sons, lovers, heirlooms wrapped in newspaper, love letters to lost soldiers, cut hands and hard times. It was inspired, explains the author, by an eight-page letter written in 1952 by his Uncle who was stationed in Korea. This letter inspired 16 years of writing resulting in a one-act play dramatizing the life of the author’s grandparents. How much is real or imagined I don’t know, but the play is a gem.
Jim Hollytree (played by the excellent Michael Cullen— I don’t know if he is any relation to the author) is a radiator worker with hands disabled by years of working with acids. His wife Ada (a marvelously nuanced Cynthia Mace) is herself pretty acidic. Paranoid and bitter, sweet and childlike, her acid comes in the form of withering observations on the one hand and guilt-inducing helplessness on the other. Jimmy, the doomed oldest son, is played by a winning young actor named Eric Miller and it is around Jimmy’s death in Korea that the play revolves.
The writing is spare, honest, and moving. The scenes are easy and conversational, but jam-packed with observation and detail and true feelings. It’s a smart play, sentimental in the best sense and more honest about family life than I’ve seen in ages. The ordering of scenes is slightly confusing. The play unrolls out of order, jumping backwards and forwards through eight key moments over two years. As the piece develops in production scenes may well be reordered for maximum impact. But the core of the show is strong and vital. This is one of the best first plays I’ve seen.
The young cast is very high-octane. Eric Miller, Erik Saxvik and Ian Holland (making his debut) make a believable band of brothers, each distinctly drawn and unique. If the play sees rewrites, these three should have a scene together. And Katy Wright Mead is heartbreaking as Clare Baggot, the fallen soldier’s unrequited love. The direction by Chris Henry is excellent (except for opening a window on set that let real January air in to freeze the audience for half the performance. I’m sure they’ll realize that soon and correct it). All together, an infinitely rewarding evening.
So, where is this play? In a second floor loft theater playing in front of a house that barely holds thirty people: the Women’s Interart Center at 500 West 52nd Street. Advertising lists it at 549 West 52nd, but it has moved. To find it, my companion and I followed directions scrawled on the back of a manila envelope taped to a door. It didn’t look promising. We were expecting maybe two or three other people in the audience.
The house was full.
And it should stay full. It should be at capacity every performance of the run. It should overflow to the point of becoming a fire safety concern. The play should be extended, and moved to a much bigger space. It deserves to be seen: off-broadway definitely, and maybe even in a Broadway house.
It’s that good. It’s a Roadshow treasure, and not to be missed.
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