What do we do when a storm rages? We fold the laundry. We try to understand our daughter. We clean a table that wasn’t dirty to begin with. We don’t think about what’s being washed way in the storm water. We remarry.
What do we do when the front door opens, loudly, all gusted wind and spattered hardwood, letting the rain inside, and also letting inside the husband we left for missing, at first, for dead, at last, but who’s now in our house with the folded laundry and the grumpy daughter and the now-clean table and our second-chance husband? We don’t have answers for that. We’ve already folded the laundry.
What do we do?
Natalie Piegari’s new play, Safe as Houses, now at Pinky Swear Productions through November 11, starts with this premise: what happens when the husband who left 10 years ago, for milk and bread, returns as if he had left only 10 minutes ago? What if there’s a storm? What if the house is no longer safe? He was 27 when he left, on Valentine’s day, in 2007. And he is still 27, in 2017. Something shifted, metaphysically, and life continued for everyone else but him, except that’s not entirely correct. Wives fretted, raged, grieved, and moved. Daughters grew up. Houses stayed put, the way houses do.
The cast is small, and extraordinary, a true ensemble where each piece locks into the other. Director Megan Behm shows an assured understanding of these characters and their relationships with themselves and each other. Carolyn Kasher’s Isabel, the wife left in the lurch by some sort of cosmic hiccup, warms into her role. Patrick Doneghy as her new husband, Henry, has terrific chemistry with Kasher, and is enjoyable to watch on stage, but the script doesn’t always know what to do with him. Henry is necessary as an emotional complication for Isabel and Nora; but, there isn’t much else about the character. Still, Doneghy inhabits him fully, and brings him to life, giving context and grace to Henry’s sudden insecurity. The standouts in the cast, however, are Jonathan Miot as Jack, the husband slipped through time and Annie Ottati as his daughter, Nora — especially in a gorgeously understated scene on the couch where the daughter who never got to know her father quietly fills him in on what he has missed. Ottati is able to blend adolescent anger with heartbreaking need and love. Miot chases bewilderment with regret seamlessly.
There is so much to love in Safe as Houses, but something about it feels…rushed. Or still coming together. There’s a wonderful
metaphor for my issue with the play on the stage, with the actors: a pile of unfinished knitting. The actors have plenty of intriguing material to work with — but, unfortunately, they’re matched with a piece that hasn’t entirely been thought through, and left unworked. Too much is explored in too short of time for the denouement to land as solidly as it could. The ending — without giving away the why of it all — is ambiguous, but not in a way that feels planned or intended. It’s possible the play needs another 30 minutes, with less time spent in disbelief of its mechanics. (It’s no spoiler to tell you that the Jack who barges through the door at the beginning of the play is the same Jack who left ten years earlier. With that being the case, the is he/isn’t he moments can start to feel interminable rather than illuminating. Less of that and more of an exploration of what any of this means for each character in turn might be what the play needs. Or it might not. I’m not a playwright.)
The actors, though, are such a joy to watch that isn’t until the walk back to the car from the theater the pesky questions pop up. Why the last name Dalloway for Isabel, Nora, and Jack? Are the names intentional allusions? Nothing was done, no flowers purchased, so maybe that was a wasted opportunity. Isabel is a painter, but the set — gorgeously designed by Jessica Cancino, with loving attention paid to its lived-in, homey feel — is empty of any of her paintings, which might reference some sort of negating stasis Isabel feels when her husband disappears — but, again, it’s left as a fray rather than a completed loop. If there’s a monumental storm raging just outside, and one’s husband has magically returned, ten years later, but not at all ten years older, in a maelstrom of confusion and anger and, eventually, violence, is now the best time to heart-to-heart with your daughter about her romantic life? Maybe there’s never a great time for those conversations, or the play is saying all times are the right time because at any time one could step outside of it all and disappear. I am not a parent. My husband hasn’t fallen through a temporal crack of some kind. I am open to the possibility. It did give me pause.
New, developing works by upcoming playwrights are always worth the time — and Safe as Houses rewards viewers with authentic, heartfelt performances.
Running Time: 90 minutes with one intermission.
Safe as Houses plays through November 11, 2017, at Pinky Swear Productions, performing at Trinidad Theater at the Logan Fringe Arts Space — 1358 Florida Avenue NE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811–4111 or purchase them online.