Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Agoraphobia Meets Addiction

By Michael Block

The fascination of the human mind is ripe for exploration in art. But how to depict it is the true test. Presented by The Dirty Blondes at the Kraine Theatre, How To Be Safe by Ashley J. Jacobson follows two women struggling to hang on when their paths cross in a time of great need. A psychological drama, this play just scratches the surface of what it can be.
Following the sudden death of her neighbor, Audrey has finally left her apartment. On her journey out of the house, she meets Willow, a young woman with a lust for adventure, on her own journey to recovery. Their chance meeting creates a unique bond that brings them both together only to have their lives come crashing down. Written by Ashley J. Jacobson, How to Be Safe is a showcase of complexity, in character and mind. It is exceptionally difficult to depict mental illness on stage. Jacobson and director Cezar Williams have done a noble job in their attempt. But the script and execution teeter on the line of textbook and presentation with not quite enough theatricality. There’s very much an essence of cinema in Jacobson’s script. Infusing that cinematic feel in a limited fashion is quite difficult. The sound design from Almeda Beynon helped display the chaos in the mind. From the anxiety of the continuity of the time to the excessive loud noises, the sound brought us into Audrey. It was intimate but not intimate enough. Even in the brevity of the piece, Jacobson has much more she can offer. The heart of the play comes when these two individuals connect after their chance meeting. It wants to happen much faster. Playing with structure could easily allow this to happen. How to Be Safe isn’t necessarily a relationship play. The connections aren’t the draw into the piece, and yet we watch what human connection, or lack there of, looks like for these two women. As someone living with great fears, Audrey’s solace of connection comes in the form of her fish, and her love for procedural shows. It’s hard to learn about Audrey’s backstory, hence needing Willow a little sooner. Willow’s connection comes from Scott, a man who wants to help but has a need for a different type of closeness. It’s a strong juxtaposition to Audrey, showing the two individuals and how their illnesses play a factor. But it truly is when we see them together that we learn the most.
photo by Rachael Elana Photography
How to Be Safe isn’t a journey play but a “moment” play. We don’t get the chance to watch Willow and Audrey go on a complete journey but deal with their problems in the here and now. With that in mind, it was important for these women to be presented with integrity and truthfulness. As Audrey, Faith Sandberg played the fear to the max. It was in stark contrast to the intensity from Jenna D’Angelo as Willow. Together, D’Angelo and Sandberg made this wonderfully odd couple that were equal parts engaging and heartbreaking. As the more dominant force, Willow’s control, and subsequent loss of control, allowed D’Angelo to stand out as the central focus. Brandon Ferraro’s sweet Scott was endearing, despite the character’s slightly skewed moral compass.
With the complexity already being a strong factor in this show, director Cezar Williams had a tough road ahead of him. Even in the brevity of the piece, the pacing was sluggish. A leading factor in this was Williams’ transitions. Jacobson’s script called for locale after locale, but on the Kraine Theatre stage, there is simply not enough space. That being said, streamlining would have assisted Williams. He often tried to pair the transitions with an accompanying scene but there was too much commotion, to no fault of the crew. The stage is simply too tiny for it. This production desired sharpness and clarity.
To be fair, the evening I saw the show, there were some technical issues with the lighting. Could it have played a factor on the overall performance? Perhaps a little. But there is more to story. There is something innately promising about How to Be Safe. It might be Ashley J. Jacobson’s daring approach to tell a difficult story.